loulamac’s #CBRV review #75: Alfred & Emily by Doris Lessing

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Alfred and Emily were Doris Lessing’s mum and dad, and like many of their generation, both were badly affected by the First World War. Alfred was injured by shrapnel, and lost his leg above the knee. For the rest of his life he refused to accept the limitations of his disability, and tried to live as an active, physical man. He was dead in his early 60s, his heart giving out after many years of battling diabetes. During the war, Emily was a well-respected nurse, tending to the broken young men coming back from Europe. What they saw and suffered during their wartime experiences hung over both of them for the rest of their lives.

Alfred & Emily is one of Lessing’s last books, and she is in contemplative mood. The book is split into two halves, with the first telling their alternative story. In it, they meet as young adults and become friends. The Great War doesn’t break out, they marry other people, and tread very different paths. Lessing’s memories of her parents become fantasies, with him a prosperous farmer and her a rich man’s widow who captivates children with her stories of the exploits of mice and uses her influence to open charity schools.

The second half shares anecdotes from their real existence. Although the war has shattered them, they are married with two children. Ex-pat life in Rhodesia is tough. Without advice or experience, they select land and build a house without shelter and far from water. Their dreams of a glamorous ex-pat lifestyle are shattered, and the evening dresses and cricket whites they packed expecting Kenya’s ‘Happy Valley’ moulder in their trunks. This is a life from which Doris and her brother escape as quickly as they can, although of course they never really leave it behind.

This approach is a really interesting idea, but it doesn’t quite come off. The writing style of each half is very different, but neither is satisfactory. It’s hard to explain, but I was left wishing there was more for me to sink my teeth into. The first part fails to create a convincing England in an alternative reality where a whole generation of men wasn’t decimated by the First World War. The second is a jumbled mix of events that just about hang together, but barely. Buried in there are Lessing’s musings on grief, disappointment, and children bearing the sorrows of their parents, which are as acute and raw as you would expect of her. But overall it saddens me to say that the book is patchy and disappointing.

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reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #40 Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson

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This may have been my favorite book of 2013.  Prior to reading this book, everything I knew about  T.E. Lawrence came from David Lean’s film, Lawrence of Arabia which I like a lot. The real story is even better and more interesting than the film.

From the outset Anderson admits that Lawrence is a difficult character to know, there is so much mythology about him, both negative and positive. Lawrence himself contributed to the confusion through his own writings that are inconsistent and contradict other eyewitness accounts.  Anderson has worked through a lot of source material, often providing the reader with differing accounts of the same event, sharing his conclusions, but allowing the reader to draw her own.

The book begins prior to WWI introducing Lawrence at a young age.  His family was reclusive due to his parents’ scandalous romance.  As the book moves into the Middle East, it follows three other men who were contemporaries of Lawrence who were operating in the Middle East.  Curt Prüfer was a German national and spy who was trying to incite jihad against the British.  Aaron Aaronsohn was a Jewish agronomist and Zionist, a spy and a critical figure in the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Anderson also tells the story of an American, William Yale, who worked for Standard Oil.  His story is much smaller than the others, but also reflects the outsider role the United States played through much of World War I.

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Miss Kate’s CBRV Review #2 – Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War by Nathaniel Philbrick

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I’ve been terribly remiss with writing these reviews, but I wanted to get this one in before Thanksgiving!

As children we were all told about the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, their initial meetings with Native Americans, and warm and fuzzy story of the first Thanksgiving. And there it ends. (We hear something about witches later on, but things get a bit muddled until the 18th century.)  But what REALLY happened, before and after?

This is something Nathaniel Philbrick (author of In The Heart of the Sea which I SO want to read), explores in his excellent book. He spends a little time on the background of the Puritan community, covering their flight from England and decade-long stay in Leiden. We are introduced to William Bradford, William Brewster (so many Williams!), John Howland, the young indentured servant who fell off the Mayflower and had to be fished out of the sea. (Full disclosure: according to my Gram, he’s one of my ancestors.) And of course, the very short Miles Standish. He was short! And violent. But oh so short! Surprisingly, the description of the voyage is not long considering the book title. The real meat of the story comes later.

The author gives a beautiful, detailed account of the Puritans’ encounters with the Native Americans and their fragile alliance with the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit.  Illness, near-starvation, the rise of other, more successful colonies. The daily struggles, the political rivalries in English and Native American communities. Friendship and mistrust on either side. This all comes to a head in the very bloody King Philip’s War, 55 years after the landing at Plymouth.

What struck me most about this book was how even-handed it is. Their are no real villains (ok, maybe one or two), and no real heroes. These were real people, and they were all remarkably human and well-rounded. Philbrick offers an unflinching narrative of the both the cruelty of some and the struggles of others to rise above it.

I recommend it.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR5 Review #41: Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

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Cannonball Read V: Book #41/52
Published: 2011
Pages: 384
Genre: Nonfiction/History

Lost in Shangri-la is a non-fiction account of a group of soldiers stationed in New Guinea during World War II. In the middle of the island was a flat valley that was home to thousands of native tribes that had never seen the outside world. During a scenic tour over the valley, an American plane crashed into a mountainside, killing most of the passengers. One of the survivors was a member of the WOC (Women’s Army Corps) named Margaret Hastings. She, along with the two other survivors, John McCollum (who lost his twin brother in the crash) and Kenneth Decker, have to survive in the jungle amidst possibly hostile native tribes until they can be rescued. On top of everything, they are doing all of this with horrific burns and injuries from the crash.

Read the rest in my blog.

LilFed’s #CBR5 Review #10: The Searchers – The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel

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This remarkable, unique book (the best nonfiction of this year so far) cannot be solidly categorized: it is a sweeping, historical Western tale of ‘savage’ Indians and ‘new frontier’ homesteaders in the mid-18th century, recounting the eventuality of a nation of Cherokee and other Indian tribes being reduced to near-extinction when refusing to yield the vast prairie lands to these white, brazen settlers intent on eliminating their very way of life and survival. It is an earnest, carefully-researched and vivid true story of a nine-year-old white girl who was abducted by Cherokee Indians in 1836, after the brutal slaughter of her family, and her subsequent life being integrated back into ‘white society’ after years of captivity.

This biography continues, encompassing the life of her son, a pivotal figure in the history of Indian ‘Americanization’, along with a literal history of our country’s “Taming of the West” and its uneasy, violent transition into the 19th century, with a massive Civil War preceding and the migration of millions from East to West following; a hindsight indictment of early America’s intolerance and racism, describing the demise of 30,000 Cherokee Indians as ‘The West Was Won’, their population reduced to less than 2,000 by the late 1870’s, by the ‘progressive’ settling of a civilization completely foreign to and dismissive of them.

It is a chronicle of the overwhelming magnitude of relentless hunting and wholesale slaughter of over six million free-roaming bison throughout the west, buffalo herds that were initially shot down in deliberate and precise fashion for the sole purpose of eliminating the Indians’ principal source of survival in the treeless, rugged and brutal plains throughout Oklahoma, Texas, and surrounding territory.

There’s also the life story of an author, Alan LeMay, who writes hugely popular, best-selling Western stories in the new 19th century, utilizing all available documentation and first-hand accounts of the actual (then-recent) histories of Indians and settlers and their violent encounters, including the abduction of 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker and the years-long search to rescue her by surviving family members like her uncle – a story that would be reinterpreted, re-invented and, in 1956, dramatized in a big-screen Western film called ‘The Searchers’.

And with the close of this prelude, beginning roughly 200 pages into Frankel’s book, there is an entirely new, freshly-detailed and revealing story of the making of an American motion picture classic, derived from all of the above-mentioned sources the author has coalesced and thoughtfully organized to guide the reader into this penultimate story of legendary, classic ‘Hollywood’ storytelling.

Directed by a veteran ‘Western’ film maker named John Ford, and starring an already-iconic leading man named John Wayne,The Searchers was one of many collaborations between the volatile, racist, misogynist, alcoholic, hot-headed ‘Pappy’ and his ever-loyal muse, a lanky, struggling B-actor born Marion Morrison, later given the more appropriate cinematic handle of ‘John Wayne’. Together, they made some of the best Western movies ever produced for the big screen, such as She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Red River, and Stagecoach. The author-slash-History teacher unearths the reality of the off-screen ‘Duke’, a constant victim of derision and humiliation by his closest mentor, intimidating director John Ford, a man of unpredictable disposition and generally a bigoted, belligerent dictator on his film sets, where no actor or production member was spared his outrageous and crude insults (he actually punched actress Maureen O’Hara in the face when she made a now-forgotten remark he took offense to).

To read about Ford alone, one might wonder why someone, anyone, didn’t kick this man’s ass out of town before completing his first movie – but Ford was not just a ‘Western film’ maker, as the director would proudly refer to himself otherwise. Considering that Ford made a quartet of classic films in at least as many years (‘Young Mr. Lincoln‘, 1939; ‘The Grapes of Wrath‘, 1940; ‘The Long Voyage Home‘, 1940; and ‘How Green Was My Valley‘, 1941), that were as far removed from the ‘Western’ genre as could be imagined, the man’s genius as a director was undeniable, which in turn afforded him great indulgences, including making stars like John Wayne tremble before him on a movie set. While Ford is certainly not the only ‘auteur’ director who could be absolutely intolerable to work with in their film making process, to read the accounts of his withering criticisms to Wayne the actor, who passively suffered them all and consistently surrendered to Ford’s will, is an extraordinary contrast to how the public perceived this strong, manly symbol of American Patriotism and willful spirit that is so ingrained in cinematic legend. Film directors in Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ were revered and omnipotent throughout the industry, until their creative powers were lost and their films had become tired and unoriginal – even by the mid-fifties, the Western was already being dismissed as an archaic film formula, but Ford’s Westerns were an exception to the rule.

In the years following its not-very-major release and initial underwhelming response, The Searchers has been rediscovered and hailed as a major inspiration to some of the greatest film directors of the latter 20th century, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich and George Lucas; in the years following its release, The Searchers has ultimately achieved the status of the Greatest Western Film ever made, and is in the Top Ten of the 100 Best Films, as designated by the American Film Institute. This dark, rueful movie that stands apart from any other formulaic ‘Western’ film of its time, is a subject of continuing debate regarding its all-too-apparent hatred towards, and outright disdain for an entire nation of Indian people, portraying them in only the most derogatory light possible, and notable for the out-of-place, shocking treatment of a female Indian character, which was Ford’s singular interpretation of ‘humor’, albeit at the expense of an entire race and gender. But a reader doesn’t have to seek out the movie and scrutinize it to fully appreciate the narrative that presents most of the screenplay treatment, with all of the relevant subtext, through its beautifully-written pages.

Author Glenn Frankel’s comprehensive work is simply astonishing. There are at least three full-length books that this one tome manages to condense between the covers to a fully satisfying degree. For one like myself, anxiously starting a new ‘making-of’ classic film story, it was a slow realization that this film ‘story’ had a 200-page background history, starting well before the invention of film itself, much less before production began on the actual movie almost a century later. Frankel writes with the authority of a confident historian, who guides us seamlessly through this saga that ends up as an equally-compelling and authoritative film history. Frankel writes with such an economic ease that the reader doesn’t notice the voluminous information he provides simultaneously with whatever story he is relating throughout.

If the concept of absorbing American history, Western myth versus fact, and the byzantine journey from History lesson to Hollywood film-making seems a bit exhausting, well, it can be, if one is not prepared to follow the unhurried and attention-demanding rhythm of Frankel’s book – he has a story to tell, much more informative and complete than would be expected in any other genre-oriented book focusing on a single time and/or subject – but the sooner this ‘rhythm’ is adopted by the reader, the greater the reward is for those absorbed in its telling will be.

Siege’s #CBR5 #7: They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook

As you all know, I’m an avid Civil War buff, and am always on the lookout for a new and interesting slant on things. They Fought Like Demons focuses on women who disguised themselves as males to join in on both sides of the conflict. Though primary sources and also reported anecdotal evidence, the authors demonstrate the methods and motivations of women in the Civil War trenches.

This definitely reads more like an academic paper than a book, but that’s okay. The authors managed to cram in an amazing amount of facts and research into a fairly small amount of space. A lot of it was fascinating, though there were sometimes SO MANY facts that it got a little hard to follow or in a few spots a bit repetitive. 

The only thing I found a little questionable was the authors’ adamant denial that any of these women (even the ones who lived as men both before and after the war) were lesbians. While I see their point, which is that women had so few options at the time that some might choose to continue to live as men because they preferred a more independent lifestyle, I think it’s a bit silly to think that none of them would be what today would be referred to as “transgendered”. In all, it’s an excellent piece of research on an overlooked area of history.

Mrs Smith Reads In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson, #CBR5, Review #15

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In the Garden of Beasts is not kind to the subject of its story. Erik Larson writes a compelling account of the ambassadorship of William E. Dodd and his family during their time in pre-WWII Germany as Hitler rises to power, but he does not pull any punches with regard to the astounding naiveté and ignorance with which they enter Berlin society during the rise of the Nazi party.

Dodd was considered a milquetoast of a man, quiet and unassuming, a lifelong academic from a poor family in rural North Carolina whose dream was to complete his A History of the Old South. His one ambition was to become an ambassador, and though he would have preferred Paris, he had studied as a graduate student at the University of Leipzig and spoke nearly flawless German, so when President Roosevelt couldn’t find any one else to take the job, Dodd was offered the post of Ambassador to Germany in 1934. Thinking this would be an easy posting with plenty of time for writing and research on his History, Dodd accepted.

Mrs Smith Reads In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson