Thursday, April 24, 2014

Ten Trees and a Truffle Dog by Jamie Ivey

The Trees and a Truffle Dog
Sniffing Out the Perfect Plot in Provence
by Jamie Ivey
2 stars - just don't like the guy
ALR Green - there's a dog in the book, but doesn't qualify as a dog book

I'm just going to quote from the dust jacket.

The plot of land was perfect, just what they'd been looking for, offering expansive views across the valley and within walking distance of the local village There was only one small problem: there was no house.

But Mr. Ivey and his wife didn't let that stop them and they set out to build their dream home on a plot of land in France. A plot that holds the promise of truffles (provided they could train a dog to locate the bloody things).

Seriously, this sounded like my cup of tea and it started off OK. We learn that Mr. Ivey and his wife are wine merchants who have relocated from England to France and dream of owning their own property. 

But here's the deal. Something kind of irked me about Mr. Ivey's attitude. It wasn't until page 196 that he provided me with a quote which finally gave voice to what was rubbing me the wrong way.

There is an etiquette to supermarket shopping the world over. Everybody enters, trolley empty, list in hand, hoping to whizz in and out as quickly as possible, praying they don't meet anyone they know. The bright lighting, the claustrophobic aisles, the chill of the freezer cabinets and the mind-numbing wait at the checkout combine to create an unpleasant experience. The shorter it has to be endured, the better.

Speak for yourself. If only he had taken the time to put that sentiment in the first person. As in "I don't like the supermarket." He goes on to tell us that what annoys him is that the people in the tightly knit community he has chosen to make his home actually want to pass pleasantries with him when they meet at the market and that apparently annoys him to no end. I'm not passing judgement on either the chatters or the speed shoppers, but don't be all lumping everybody into your view of the world.

And then I realized what had been nagging me from the start. Mr. Ivey chooses to locate his family in the French countryside, but throughout the reader gets the impression that he's scoffing at the very culture he claims to embrace. 

Of course he also poked at one of my sensitive spots with his endless discussion of "helpless land owner v. manipulative builders." None of the people in the book (including his wife and child) have much dimension at all. It's all about him. 

What of the dog? He does buy a dog to assist him in locating truffles. In fact he buys a well bred dog from a good breeder (but paints the breeder as a total whack-a-do). Seems like the dog is happy, so there's that.

I suspect we are all supposed to chuckle along at the colorful characters, but I wasn't amused. They weren't people, they were cartoons. 

Now then, this is the sixth book in the stack of twelve that I ordered from Bas Bleu on the promise that they were sending me a "top-notch mix of fiction and nonfiction, sure to please all kinds of bookworms." Honestly, I am tempted to drop the remaining six at the library without cracking them open because contrary to the alleged "mix" the books thus far have been painfully similar in style and subject matter. I believe out of the six, I enjoyed one, managed to work my way through two and had to drop the other three out of boredom. Heck, even the stuffy old Pulitzer Prize committee has a better track record choosing books I might like.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Lynching of Orin Newfield by Gerald Jay Goldberg

The Lynching of Orin Newfield
by Gerald Jay Goldberg
5 stars - great character and wonderful writing

ALR Green - a dog gets kicked, but he's OK, and Mr. Newfield takes excellent care of his cows

Before I start my review, allow me a bit of reflection regarding my history with this book. 

Because, you see, I recall quite clearly a lot about how I came to first read it.

As a child, I was allowed free access to any book I fancied. I early on developed a joy of reading and one of my favorite spots to make purchases was the Hathaway House Bookshop (shown here, slightly before my time).

Ah, book lovers, can anything compare to the delight of wandering through the narrow passages and crowded rooms of an old house converted into a bookstore? My parents encouraged my habit by taking me there and setting a price or quantity limit on my purchases. I would very carefully select perhaps a dozen candidates and then, sadly, winnow it down to a precious three or four.

Given the timing of my purchase, The Lynching of Orin Newfield must have undoubtedly been up front with the sparkling new releases. How else would it have come to my attention? A precocious 13 year old at the time, I must have been intrigued by the dust jacket which promised the tale of Orin Newfield, "... wealthy dairy farmer, self-made man, [and] both victim and perpetrator of the community's plot to extinguish his existence."

Any doubt would have been erased by a glimpse of the writing, as in this passage where Newfield describes his court appointed lawyer:

Didn't want him in the first place. You shouldn't need anybody if you tell the truth, but the judge insisted and threw him in for free. Said he was high-minded, too. Court-appointed Billings from Windsor, a legal giant dedicating his services to the preservation of a fair, free, and impartial judicial system regardless of the accused's status in society, high or low. Another pious philanthropist, but I wasn't inclined to be unreasonably prejudiced. As long as he got me off, I didn't give a damn about his queer motives.

I loved the book and was quite titillated by the foul language and blatant sexuality of Mr. Newfield. So much so, in fact, that when my 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Benson, asked the class to recommend a book that we all might read, well, I handed him my copy. And you know what? He agreed. So my whole 8th grade class got to read the book. 

Unfortunately, there my memory grows dim other than to recall that I was somewhat disappointed with the lackluster reception by my classmates.

But for years, now, the memory of the novel and the questions in my mind of why I liked it have tickled my brain and so I set out to reread it. No longer in print and not available in all of the metro-west Boston libraries, I purchased a used copy online (one which will be staying in my personal library).

And you know what? This is an awesome book and it makes me wonder why Gerald Jay Goldberg didn't write more. It's complex and fascinating. The story takes place during the week from Christmas to New Year's and must be set in the late forties given that Truman is president.

Here we are in rural Vermont, listening to Orin tell his story. He's a sonofabitch, no doubt. Prone to violence and condescension to all, save his wife, Alma, and his beloved herd of cattle. But is he really a bad guy? Well, yes and no. The beauty of the book is that he isn't all bad, nor is he really good. And while he is hard to like, he's kind of hard to dislike as well. 

The central incident involves Orin's assault on his handyman and the subsequent (alarmingly speedy) trial and fallout. Again, from the dust cover:

The central meaning of the novel resides in the confrontation between two notions of justice - one rigidly inhumane, the other sentimentally vicious.

Cool, right? Best of all, you can open up to any passage and be both horrified and enchanted by Newfield's musings as in this excerpt from when he was "comforting" a grieving widow:

For some reason that set her off worse than ever and she began to shake, roll, and thrash about as if she was going down for the third time. Since she was busy, I didn't see any harm in running my hand up her legs to pass the time. They were smoothies all right, as good as they looked, and I was just beginning to get comfortable when Mrs. Brownhower jerks herself up ramrod stiff and, eyeing my paw on her property, gives me the cold squint of suspicion. Whoops! Tried to get rid of the damn limb but it was like a hot wire. I couldn't drop it.

Finally, I am sad to report that the Hathaway House Bookshop is now an alarmingly upscale furniture store full of breathtakingly overpriced furniture all done up in Official Olde New England antique house settings. I went there once and felt like my wallet had been emptied just by walking through the door. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor

by MacKinlay Kantor
1956 Pulitzer Prize
5 stars - wow, just, WOW

Ha! Did you think I had stopped reading? Well, friends, this 760 page volume took a while to get through, but I never once had the urge to stop. No, instead, I savored every word. This is a masterpiece!

Andersonville is a fictionalized account of the Andersonville civil war prison. Mr. Kantor spent years researching his subject and combines real historical characters and events with fictional persons to weave a devastating tale of a horrific period in the history of our nation.

Andersonville Prison was established near the end of the civil war and was located in Georgia. With all able men fighting on the front, the prison was staffed by the dregs and misfits. Children, seniors, and wounded soldiers. None of whom were prepared for the task at hand.

The prison opened in 1864 and originally covered about 16 acres. While it was expanded at one point, it in no way could accommodate the over 33,000 Union soldiers sent there. At one point, the estimate was that there were 1500 soldiers / acre. 

The prisoners were provided with, well, nothing. No clean water, no shelter, and what food there was had little meat and no vegetables. Scurvy ran rampant. A minor cut festered and killed. Starving, hopeless men formed bands of raiders in order to survive, the healthy stealing from the sick. The sick stealing from the dying.

The book follows a few main characters. Mainly Ira Claffey and his family. They are modest estate owners who have the misfortune of living adjacent to the prison. Their sons all met their deaths in the civil war and Ira Claffey and daughter struggle with the realization of what is going on in the prison and what it means about their Confederate army and the human condition itself.

For me, even more compelling than the story of Ira and his family were the chapters about individuals. Mr. Kantor takes us through the lives of several prisoners and prison staff. Here we see painfully ordinary people with pedestrian issues, dreams modest or spectacular, who are ultimately rendered into unrecognizable beings for whom none of them could ever have been prepared. Many of them die. In fact it is estimated that 13,000 prisoners died in the 15 months of operation.

I cannot begin to describe the depth and poetry of the book. Reading it is exhausting. There are no fabricated bright spots. It's real and ugly.

Now then, in 1996 Hollywood apparently made a movie version of Andersonville. Don't watch it, please. I watched the trailer and what I saw were clean, well fed, well clothed, robust young men. Nothing like the almost inhumane creatures who actually populated the prison. Nothing even coming close to the horror of the few black and white photos you can find on the Internet that were taken at the camp. 

Read the book. Just do it. Or at least learn about Andersonville. It's an important part of our history (although I suspect that most folks reading this blog already know about it). I found this link a useful starting place.