September 13, 2019 § Leave a comment

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. It’s an improbable, yet engaging story: in coastal North Carolina a young girl abandoned by her family grows to womanhood isolated from townfolk in a shack in the marshes. In her loneliness she seeks love but finds more reliable solace in the beguiling beauty of nature, becoming an authority on coastal species. There is a murder mystery that must be solved, and there is a trial. Delia Owens’s lyrical prose will keep you reading, but if you’re like me, you may grow restless with some over-romanticized passages and her recitation of Amanda Hamilton poetry. My advice is to bear it and be patient. All becomes clear in a stunning twist of an ending in the last few pages that you may not see coming. Fiction.

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. Pulitzer prize-winning novel of a wheelchair-bound author, Lyman Ward, researching and writing the story of his grandparents, who were among early settlers of the west. Ward’s life and that of his grandparents parallel each other as the novel unfolds, and historic literary figures weave in and out of the grandparents’ accounts. Stegner vividly captures the old west of Colorado, California, Mexico, and Idaho in the second half of the 19th century. Although fictional, the stories are based on actual letters of Mary Hallock Foote. Fiction.

1491, by Charles C. Mann. What was America like before Columbus and the later Spaniards arrived and disrupted the native civilizations and devastated them with diseases to which the Americans had no immunity? You will be surprised at Mann’s revelations of complex cultures that rivaled Sumer and ancient Greece in their sophistication, organization, philosophy, engineering, and architecture. Their achievements in agriculture alone are astonishing enough, creating maize and developing most of the varieties of beans and all of the squashes we consume today. This book is an intriguing eye-opener. Non-fiction.

The Pioneers, by David McCullough. Focusing on the lives of ordinary citizens who travelled on flatboats down the Ohio River to sculpt civilization in the wilderness, McCullough tells in microcosm the story of the settlement of the Northwest Territory and how the values of these settlers and their insistence on adhering to the principles of the Northwest Ordinance shaped much of American settlement that followed. Non-fiction.

A Woman of no Importance, by Sonia Purnell. The true, incredible story of one-legged American Virginia Hall, who operated in France as a spy for British intelligence (she had been rejected by US intelligence) and facilitator of the resistance, most of the time in Lyon right under the nose of the vicious, sadistic Gestapo commander Klaus Barbie. Her exploits included spiriting resistance fighters and British spies out of prisons, supplying and coordinating spies and arming resistance groups, arranging sabotage, and managing underground railroads that helped spies and others on the lam from the Nazis escape to Spain and Switzerland, all of which earned her the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945. It’s a sensational story that is all the more remarkable in that it really happened. Non-fiction.

Beartown and Us Against Them, by Fredrick Backman. On the surface this pair of novels (the second continues the story of the first) tell the story of the impact of hockey on two small towns in Norway. What they are really about, though, is what sports of any kind (e.g., high school football) mean to a small rural community, how sports can corrupt and debase people, and how sports can ennoble and uplift. Backman, who is author of A Man Called Ove, has an idiosyncratic, clear style that is easy and enjoyable to read. Fiction.

Indianapolis, by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic. Thoroughly researched account of America’s worst military naval disaster, the sinking of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis in the waning days of WWII. The book opens with a depiction of the ship’s heroic involvement in most of the war’s major naval engagements in the Pacific, its near destruction by a Kamikaze plane, and its top-secret delivery to Tinian of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. The account continues with the vessel’s tragedy of July 30, 1945, barely two weeks before Japan surrendered, when, on her way from Guam to Leyte for a training exercise, she was torpedoed in the Philippine Sea and went down, taking 300 of the 1,200 crew with her. Hair-raising survivor accounts tell how they were not found until 3 1/2 days later, during which their numbers were thinned drastically by dehydration, shark attacks, drowning, and suicide. The book also details the aftermath, including court-martial of the ship’s captain and his ultimate exoneration. Non-fiction.

American Pop, by Snowden Wright. The rise and fall of the fictional Forster family of North Mississippi, whose forebear created the soft drink Panola Pop in a drug store, managed it into the best-selling cola in the world, became fabulously wealthy, and then dissipated it all in later generations. The story of the family and their soda empire evolves against the canvas of a century of American history that ultimately seals the family’s fate. This pop (no pun intended) novel is entertaining and light, bubbly and tasty like its eponym. Wright, a Meridian native, is son of Circuit Judge Charles Wright. Fiction.

Been Down so Long it Looks Like up to Me, by Richard Fariña. College hijinks in the early 60’s, before the Beatles and Bossa Nova pushed aside folk music, coffeehouse jazz, and the beatniks. Fariña, who was married to Joan Baez’s sister Mimi, was an up-and-coming folk singer who performed with his wife and was being heralded as the next Bob Dylan. On the day his novel was published in 1966, though, he was killed in a motorcycle accident leaving a publication celebration party. This is a roman à clef for Fariña’s own experience at Cornell University with his close friend, Thomas Pynchon. But behavior that seemed provocative and venturesome back then comes across as puerile and tiresome almost 60 years later. Still, it’s a peek into an era and its values. Fiction.

On Desperate Ground, by Hampton Sides. Retelling of the plight of 30,000 US Marines in the Korean War sent by incompetent generals into a trap at the Chosin Reservoir, where they were attacked by more than 120,000 Communist Chinese troops. The marines were forced to fight their way out through enemy lines. Sides tells the story through the eyes of officers and enlisted men whom he interviewed, and does not conceal his scorn for the generals who sent the men into this predicament. Non-fiction.

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