Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Raisin in the Sun

I've been reading my way through the Reading Marathon list for VBPL, and found myself searching for a good read in the play category. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry definitely fit the bill. Set in the ghetto, this play tells the tale of a family trying to live out their dreams and escape their reality. It's a story of race relations in America that is all too disturbingly still a problem, even though the play was produced in the late 1950s.

Lorraine Hansberry was the first black woman to produce a play on Broadway in 1959, and the fact is, there haven't been that many since then. This story really could be plopped out of the middle any inner-city family of today. The writing is brilliant and brings us into the lives of a family of five living in a two bedroom apartment. Walter has a dream of starting his own business, Benetha wants to be a doctor, and Mama dreams of owning a home in the suburbs. And all those dreams are dependent on an insurance check being delivered in the mail.

As you can imagine, things go south, but in the end, we have hope that this family, having held their heads high against the obstacles presented to them, will live out some of their dreams into the future, even if they didn't come in the original packages they were hoping for. If you're not registered for the Reading Marathon yet, you should check it out and join in the race for the finish for 2017.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Snow White: A Graphic Novel

A beautiful girl with snow white skin, seven young boys who help her, the queen of the Ziegfield Follies, and a ticker tape that lets her know who is most beautiful of all. It's a twist on an old, wonderful tale almost completely told in pictures, and you're going to love it.

There have been so many versions of the tale of Snow White that you might be thinking that a new twist isn't even possible, but Snow White: A Graphic Novel won't disappoint you. Set in the glitz and glam of pre-Depression era New York City, the black and white graphic novel will make you feel like you've stepped into a film noir masterpiece. You can hear the whispers of a mystery narrator in your mind as you look at the dramatic scenes of Snow White running through the alleys of New York to escape Mr. Hunter, the man hired to kill her. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but only New York's magical world can provide the perfect glass coffin for our princess when she gets a hold of a poison apple from a street vendor.

I'm hoping you've signed up for the Reading Marathon for 2017. If so, this one fits in a lot of categories - graphic novel, featured on VBPL reads, and I definitely recommend it.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Training for the Reading Marathon

Those of you who followed my posts for 2016 know that I was doing a reading challenge to finish 41 books in 2016. The good news is that I finished. The even better news is that Virginia Beach Public Library has decided to have our very own challenge for 2017 called the Reading Marathon.

Here's how it works:
Register for the program
Log in your books
Collect badges and prizes

We'd like you to finish 26.2 books for the year. What's the .2? Well, sometimes you start a book and just find you don't like it very much. Life is too short to read bad books, so just mark that title off as your .2 and pick another.

Want to go the extra mile? We have 27 categories of books for you to choose from if you're interested in expanding your regular reading. The site has suggested lists if you're having trouble picking a book in the category, and you can always ask a librarian to help you find other titles whenever you come visit.

Finish the marathon by the end of the year, and you just may even get a nice 26.2 reading marathon bumper sticker. For more information check out the Reading Marathon link.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall

I started the week with a book about a mild-mannered person surviving a tragedy and I'm ending it with a book about an ostentatious person becoming a tragedy. Go figure.

In 1968, Donald Crowhurst set off to sail around the world single-handed.  He was part of a race sponsored by the Sunday Times.  He had some amateur sailing experience but was an electronics engineer by trade.  He was an often brash and self-assured intellectual and declared to anyone who would listen that he should certainly be the favorite in the race despite having less experience and financial backing than almost any other competitor.  Crowhurst set off on the last possible day he could and still qualify for the competition.  He had been scrambling to have last minute modifications done to his small trimaran boat and was still receiving supplies up to the last day.  At some points in the race he was traveling at record-setting speeds and went from a curious afterthought to a possible winner.  Then weeks before he was expected to return from his 30,000 mile journey, his boat was found drifting in the mid-Atlantic unmanned.  There was no sign of an accident or a struggle.  Donald Crowhurst was just gone.

The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst was written by two journalists who worked for the Times.  And the book presents a problem:  how do you write about the last months of a man's life when he had almost no direct contact with anyone.  Hall and Tomalin pieced together the mystery of Donald Crowhurst by going through everything that had been on board his ship.  They read every logbook, journal, and odd scrap of paper left behind.  They watched clips Crowhurst had filmed with a camera given to him by the BBC.  They listened to audio recordings Crowhurst had made during his journey.  And like all journalists, their story was ultimately about a person.  They tell the story of Crowhurst's life from childhood to his sad, mysterious end.  I was enthralled throughout this book and I have no sailing experience whatsoever.  This story has confirmed for me two things:  sailing alone is far more interesting than I had assumed and that I have no desire whatsoever to do it.

If you like this book, you might also like Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

To the White Sea by James Dickey

Sergeant Muldrow is an American tail gunner during World War II.  He mans a massive machine gun in a plane as it flies raids over Japan.  Early in the story, his plane is shot down.  Muldrow is the only survivor as his obsessive preparations for each flight left him with the only parachute that was tied down.  He is able to parachute out of the spiraling plane to the safety of Tokyo--a place where he could be shot on sight.  In addition, he was briefed that Tokyo will be firebombed within the next day or two.  So, Muldrow must make his way through hostile territory without being detected and also avoiding the fire being rained down by his own countrymen.

To the White Sea is apparently in development to be made into a film.  And why not?  The synopsis reads like a thrilling adventure story.  The passages where Muldrow attempts to escape from Tokyo in a large crowd fleeing huge fires are dizzying and vivid.  If it is ever filmed, it could be an unforgettable sequence.  But this is not the first time this book has been talked about for a film adaptation.  Over a decade ago, the Coen brothers were working on a script until they realized that there is barely any dialogue in the story.  Muldrow has a brief conversation with a fellow soldier in the first chapter and one more interaction with an American later but for most of the book you are left with Muldrow's thoughts.

And that's what separates this book from most adventure stories.  Muldrow is no hero.  He is extremely well-suited to his predicament as he has little to no need for human companionship.  He grew up in rural Alaska and happily seeks a cold mountain in Japan where he can live off the land in isolation until there is an opportunity for total escape.  He traps game easily.  He kills whenever necessary and - it's hinted - when it is not.  As the story goes on, Muldrow no longer seems like an impressive and resourceful outdoorsman and starts to reveal himself as a violent enigma.  He is a man with few abstract thoughts beyond a guiding principal that the more he can leave the world of men for the world of nature the better off he will be.  He is barely there...which makes him perfectly adept to disappear.

If you like this book, you might also like Deliverance which is also by James Dickey.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng

Several of the books I'm reviewing this week are about journeys.  Some are for glory but most are simply for survival.  Southern Cross the Dog isn't really either.  It's about a journey but less the journey you take when you're fighting for survival and more the journey when you just happen to be alive.

Robert Chatham is a boy when the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 engulfs his home and town.  His life to that point is gone but the scars of living remain.  Scars like seeing the dead body of his older brother who was murdered for falling in love with a white girl.  Scars like having to watch his father swallow his pride and hand over a rifle to two white hunters who just happen to want it.  Robert's journey throughout the rest of his life takes him around the American South and at times it feels like a challenge to see if every possible bad thing can happen to him.  Wherever Robert goes, a black dog follows and if you are familiar with the Delta Blues, you know a black dog portends disaster.

Southern Cross the Dog is not just the story of Robert.  The book is written in sections that jump around in time and place.  Character threads are picked up and come back to several times.  There is a recently released from prison piano player, his drunken promoter, a brothel Madame, one of her new hires, a logging crew, and a family of patois-speaking fur trappers.  With all of these characters, there are smaller stories and scenes that all add to the whole but the story is less about character and plot than it is about atmosphere.  There is a thick, humid Southern atmosphere to this book.  Bill Cheng is from New York and admits to having never even been to Mississippi (full disclosure:  neither have I) but he gets the feeling right.  It's not quite southern Gothic though there is plenty of grotesquerie.  It's heady and disorienting and Cheng's writing is superb even if you forget that this is his first novel.

If you like this story, you could try Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy, another book about traveling through the South and having terrible, violent things happen to you (it's better than that makes it sound).

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Devil in the Valley by Castle Freeman

Being offered three wishes is a common theme in fairy tales.  But what if you weren't in a fairy tale?  And what if instead of three wishes, you had as many as you wanted for months?  And what if all you had to do in return was sell your soul?

Those are the questions that Langdon Taft must answer early on in The Devil in the Valley.  He is visited by a smooth-talking but overall jocular man who claims to be from hell.  The man makes his offer to Taft and after a little deliberation, Taft accepts.  From then on, Taft chooses what will happen in his small Vermont town and whom it will affect.  All the while, the costume-changing demon tempts him with wealth and women and revenge.

The Devil in the Valley is a modern retelling of the centuries old tale of Faust or Dr. Faustus.  Castle Freeman puts his trademark New England spin on the story.  Taft is not startled by the appearance of the demon nor does he agonize over his decisions.  He is soft-spoken and logical even reasoning that taking the deal doesn't matter to him because he doesn't believe in souls anyway.  Freeman's writing is straightforward but his characters are always sly enough to keep you off-kilter.  The little jibes in the dialogue and the small touches in the plot inject humor into what could have been a maudlin tale.  This short novel is worth your time if only to spark your imagination about whether or not you could be trusted with almost unlimited power.

If you like this book, you might want to read the orginal Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.