Monday, November 21, 2011

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

 Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood  by Alexandra Fuller, narrated by Lisette Lecat, Audible Books, 9hrs, 57 mins. December, 2003.                                                                        Her choice not to re-write her family history, to be so honest and truthful, makes this unsentimental story one worth reading. 
This is the story of a white, poor farming family in colonial Africa as independence comes to the native populations in the 1970-80s. It is one strange story, told from the view of a young girl as she grows up in Rhodesia, Malawi and finally Zambia. The author, Alexandra Fuller, gives a searingly honest accounting of her family history. Her parents clearly racist (“...if only one country could have remained under white rule things would have been so much better.”) are dysfunctional in many ways. Her mother, later diagnosed as bipolar, is a barely functioning alcoholic; her father, while humorous and certainly the more present parent is also alcoholic. Their neglect is hard to read about and even harder to understand.

What does come through loud and strong in this story is the difficulty of the life they lead. Malaria, mosquitoes, too many leopards to count, the death of three of the authors siblings are all recounted in a matter of fact way that speaks to the everyday hardships that are faced in Central Africa. To illustrate how different the author’s childhood was think on this one - at the age of nine years old she was taught how to clean, load and shoot an Uzi machine gun during the colonial war in Rhodesia.

One wonders why this family would continue in this harsh land and I think the author gives some clues to this in the story. She clearly considers Africa her home, her descriptions of the land its flora and fauna are vivid and captivating.

I had very mixed feelings about this book, I think in many cases you won’t like what you are reading. The author’s honesty delivers an unflattering portrait of a very dysfunctional family, but the author’s love for her family, her gentle acceptance of her parent’s alcoholism and neglect are oddly affecting. Her matter-of-fact recounting of the horrors of the colonial wars seen through a child’s eyes is memorable. Her choice not to re-write her family history, to be so honest and truthful, makes this unsentimental story one worth reading.

I listened to this story as an audio book and thought the reader, Lisette Lecat, did an excellent job. She was able to differentiate the author’s voice from childhood through to a young adult.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, Farrar, Straus and Giroux October 2011
 "...a weak story well told"

For me The Marriage Plot was my most anticipated book of the year. I had read Eugenides earlier works (Middlesex, Virgin Suicides) and loved them. I went to hear the author read from his work and answer questions at the Free Library session he conducted. All of this anticipation I think added to my disappointment with this story.

The setting for the novel is the Brown University campus in 1982. There are three central characters – Madeline, an indulged rich girl is a Literature major who loves the works of the great Victorian novelists (Eliot, James, etc.); Leonard is a brilliant biology major who has bipolar disease; Mitchell an idealist majoring in religious studies rounds out the trio. The story opens on graduation day. Madeline and Leonard have been lovers but have separated. On the way to graduation Madeline finds out that Leonard has been hospitalized for his bipolar disorder, she skips graduation joins him at the hospital and begins a period that ends up with her marriage to him a year later. Mitchell has been in love with Madeline (or an idealized version of her) since freshman year but his love is unrequited. The story is told in three parts from each of their view points. 
Let me first concentrate on what I liked about this novel. Eugenides is able to create genuine characters that have a real depth to them. The sections where Leonard’s mental illness is depicted were excellent. He described the lithium effects on Leonard’s personality and he gives real understanding to the depression that he suffers from. I read these parts and was sure that Eugenides must have had firsthand experience with mental illness to write this well. Leonard is the most developed of the characters; we get his back story of family problems and have a real understanding of his personality. Mitchell is also a well done character, he is the seeker of truth and beauty in the trio, even his idealism rings true for a 22 year old. His trip to work at Mother Teresa’s hospital in India (something Eugenides did) and his eventual dawning that he is not meant to become a religious mystic again rings true in the telling. I also liked the way Eugenides was able to describe the places where the novel occurred. The Brown campus, the genetics laboratory and the upper class New Jersey society all were worlds that were lush with detail and alive to the reader.

There were a number of things I did not like about this novel. I thought that the number of literary and philosophical references (some of which I understood, most of which probably passed me by), were too clever and in the end pretentious and distracting from the story. I really didn’t care for any of the characters, Leonard was narcissistic to the point of annoyance – I know, I know he was mentally ill – but it didn’t make him any more likeable. Madeline, like Mitchell was an idealist, but she seemed to also be self absorbed and really didn’t show much character growth. I was never able to understand what she saw in Leonard. Mitchell was the best of them, but again not enough for me to care about. Lastly, I thought the story lacked tension, probably because toward the end I had only a mild interest in the fate of these characters.

This novel is not Eugenides best effort. He is a fine writer who is erudite, witty and clever but that isn’t enough to carry this novel – a weak story well told.
I read a copy of this book that I purchased.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Destiny of the Republic

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicne and Murder of a President by Candice Millard, Random House Audio, September 2011, narrated by Paul Read, 9 hours, 47 minutes.

It is the best kind of history to read -engrossing and all encompassing without been dry or stilted in anyway

In this gripping account of the murder of James Garfield, 20th President of the US, Candice Millard uses the assassination as a means to examine the culture and politics of America in the 1880s. My guess is if you remember anything at all about Garfield from US history it is that he was assassinated by a “disappointed office seeker”. Millard clears that one up early; he was killed by a man who was seriously mentally ill, certainly way more than disappointed.
We are treated to an examination of the US society fifteen years after the end of the Civil War. In 1880 the politicians are divided between those who support the spoils system (winners get to name their friends and supporters to federal offices) and those who are looking to reform the system into a meritocracy. Garfield is among the latter. Garfield was a poor son of an Ohio farmer who had worked to get himself a classical education. After service in the Union Army where he rose in the ranks to become a general officer he has won the US presidency through an unlikely series of events. After reading this story I am convinced that Garfield could have been a great president if he’d lived. He was certainly a top notch guy – well rounded, courageous, ethical, funny, empathic and intelligent

Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, receives almost as much background as Garfield himself. The author recounts Guiteau’s descent into mental illness. His unsuccessful marriage, his inability to hold a job, his chronic indebtedness and his delusions are all laid out. The parts of this story about Guiteau are downright scary and read like a thriller as he slowly moves toward the assassination.

Millard has a great gift in her ability to describe what it was like in the 1880s. One of the things that got my attention was that the president of the US, everyday had office hours where anybody (!) could make an appointment and meet with him. You just came to the White House, sat in the anteroom and waited to be seen. No security, little or no screening – amazing and this was only 130 years ago! In fact Garfield had spoken to Guiteau at least twice prior to the assassination. Garfield was shot at the train station in DC where he had gone accompanied only by his friend the Secretary of State, to board a train to vacation with his family at the Jersey shore.

The medical drama ensues after Garfield is shot. Antiseptic techniques have not been accepted by the majority of US physicians. Joseph Lister attended the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia and described his success with asepsis; he was ridiculed by the most eminent surgeons in the US. Garfield’s wounds were survivable; the bullet he took did not hit any major organs. He was most probably infected by the medical staff who continually probed his wound with unsterilized hands and instruments. He lived for 10 weeks as he slowly and painfully succumbed to overwhelming infection. The battles that took place between the arrogant physician in charge of his care (William Bliss) and younger colleagues who understood wound infection are all documented. This tragedy plays out almost in slow motion and really is heart breaking.

My review really doesn’t do justice to how good this book is. In an effort not to make the review too long I’ve left out lots of things that add to the richness of this story. It is the best kind of history to read -engrossing and all encompassing without been dry or stilted in anyway. If you read history or even if you don’t, don’t miss this one!
I listened to the audio edition and Paul Read was a good narrator, although some of the female dialogue he read was breathy and a little strange.

I listened to a copy of this story I bought from