Friday, February 24, 2017

"The cottage sat at the edge of the lough..."

Traveling to Bainbridge Island this past weekend, we happened upon this bookstore.  Browsing in the clearance section, I found a copy of TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. Standing in the aisle I flipped through it. Even though the words were familiar, I had read it a few years ago, I was mesmerized again.Taking it up to the cash register, I was charmed by the sales clerk who was so pleased I had found it. And on sale!

The title refers to journeys taken by wind, sea, and plane. Two pilots attempting to fly from Newfoundland to Ireland agree to carry a letter written by a journalist. Frederick Douglass makes an appearance on a book tour of Ireland and inspires a housemaid to seek her freedom in America.  A Senator is well-known to the transatlantic crew of British Airways for his trips back and forth from Ireland to New York, tasked with brokering peace. The journalist’s granddaughter, herself advanced in years, attempts to sell the original letter which has remained unopened.   

TransAtlantic manages the rare feat of beautifully blending plot and poetry. Read it once for the writing. Read it again for the story. And read it a third time to savor both. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Executive Order 9066

This year local organizations are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 in 1942 with events titled "How Could Concentration Camps Happen?" and "Never Again."

I originally posted this in April of 2009, but contemplating the whys, hows, and consequences of the internment of US citizens has never seemed more relevant.

When I lived in Japan, the junior high school assistant principal asked me to come up to his desk one day. He handed over a small book that had belonged to his grandfather. In it were his grandfather’s notes taken in an English class. But as I read “dig the latrine,” I realized the English class had taken place in a prison camp. Both horrified and fascinated, I read through the rest of the book and carefully returned it to my boss. Hopefully my red face conveyed what my Japanese could not.

Surrounded by Hello Kitty, sushi and Ninja Warrior , it’s easy to forget there was a time when our two countries were enemies. But Sandra Dallas takes us back to that world where "Nip" does not refer to a cheese cracker.

By the third page of Tallgrass, I had to double check the cover to make sure this wasn’t Harper Lee’s long awaited second novel. Dallas’ characters channel the precocious observations and level headed charm of Scout and Atticus. In this case, Rennie (“Squirt”) and her father Loyal Stroud deal with WWII racial tensions surrounding the internment of Japanese-Americans to a camp near their Colorado beet farm.

The Strouds hire some of the camp residents to help out on the farm, and Loyal becomes the unofficial spokesman for the Japanese-are-decent-folks side of town. Hooligan Beaner Jack and his sidekick Danny do more than their share to represent the opposite view. A couple of murders, pregnancies, and telegrams from the front later, all in the town are examining where they stand.

If you like Hisaye Yamamoto and love Harper Lee, you’ll eagerly mow through Tallgrass.

Friday, February 10, 2017

"redlining on espresso"

“Did you see the mountain today?” my husband and I will ask each other on clear days. Even after a year, the view of Mt. Rainier never disappoints. Despite living only 45 miles from another iconic Seattle site, the Space Needle, we don’t see that one nearly as often. It usually takes an out-of-town visitor to motivate us to venture into the city.

In the novel Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch, the Space Needle is still a novelty. It’s 1962 and the World’s Fair is in its opening days. In Lynch’s books, Roger Morgan is Mr. Seattle. It is Roger that came up with the idea for the Space Needle. It is Roger that directs the fair that attracts visitors from across the nation and world, along with dignitaries such as Prince Philip and Elvis. Morgan spends his days at the fair making friends and deals. Nights see him in the underground gambling rooms spread around the city.

Fast-forward four decades. Helen Gulanos, a new hire at the Post-Intelligencer, is less than charmed by the city.  Assigned to cover Roger Morgan’s 70th birthday party, she discovers Roger is running for mayor. Even though Roger has been involved in the political world as a consultant, he has never run for office. Helen begins researching his past to find out who the man is behind the myth.

As the novel flip-flops between time periods, it takes us into the backrooms of political corruption and into the equally fascinating newsrooms of a city paper. We see the role the media plays in vetting those running for office. It also reveals the wisdom of hindsight in knowing which stories to publish and when. As Roger says, “You could line up a whole bunch of truths about anyone and still miss the ones that really matter.”

Friday, February 3, 2017

book lust

When I moved to Washington, I started hearing a woman named Nancy Pearl talking about books on the radio. Curious, I checked out her book called More Book Lust. Already hooked by the title (and subtitle: “1,000 new reading recommendations for every mood, moment, and reason”), I dug in. Trying not to feel overwhelmed, I began by browsing.

In Dewey Deconstructed, she recommends books from the naughts (where you can find Pearl’s books) to the 900s (where you can find All the Shah’s Men or Night Train to Turkistan).

The Lewis and Clark: Adventures Extraordinaire section highlights a few fictional titles about the explorers namely I Should Be Extremely Happy in You and From Sea to Shining Sea.

Since Atonement by Ian McEwan is one of my top 10, I was happy to find other Tricky, Tricky titles like Anita Shreve’s The Last Time They Met and Connie Willis’s Passage.

You can find another good list about reading a book about books hereSome of my favorites from that list include:

84Charing Cross by Helene Hanff
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby

Friday, January 27, 2017

Hologram for the King

I first read Dave Egger’s Hologram for the King when it was published in 2012. After watching the movie, I went back and reread it. Aside from a few minor character changes and a couple of plot adjustments, the screenplay balances the humor and ennui portrayed in the book. 

Alan Clay travels to Saudi Arabia to sell a new teleconferencing system to the king.  On his first day, he misses the shuttle to King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) where the presentation is to take place. The hotel arranges a driver who introduces himself as “driver, guide, hero.”

Yousef is a bright spark of humor in an otherwise bleak novel about globalization’s effects on manufacturing and middle-aged executives. Paranoid that someone might blow up his car, Yousef stops to check under the hood before he starts the engine. For what? He’s not exactly sure. As he tells Alan, “I watch the same TV shows as you.”

Alan means well, but he is floundering. Divorced, he needs this deal to go through so he can afford to put his daughter back in college and get by until his house, long on the market, sells. He tries to advocate for his three young techies who have been relegated to a tent outside despite its proximity to a grand, air-conditioned, practically vacant office building. Day after day, the Saudi representative is unavailable. No one knows for sure when the King will appear.

Alan remains (ironically) optimistic. “Maybe if he was the sort of man who could eat someone else’s hash browns, who the hotel wanted to impress so much they sent him someone else’s breakfast, maybe then he was the sort of man who could get an audience with the King.”

Next up is an adaptation of Egger’s The Circle. Will it be as successful an adaptation? We can only wait. And see. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

On Your Marks

Disappointed, and quite frankly disturbed, by the impending swearing-in of the winner of a certain presidential race, I decided to distract myself this week (I’m not the only one) with a book about a different kind of race – the mile.  

Reading a book about sports qualifies as a challenge since I haven’t read a (nonfiction) book about sports since 2009

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It by Neal Bascomb tells the story of three men who are, well, in the running, to be the first to achieve a four-minute mile. 

After less than stellar showings at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, the men go home with renewed vigor to train harder and better.

Roger Bannister, a British medical student, trains alone when he’s not at the hospital. After failing to shave the last few seconds off his time, he seeks out a coach. He is told he only needs three things to achieve his goal: pacemakers, more strength, and complete belief in himself.

John Landy, an Australian agricultural science student who would rather collect butterflies, shakes off the wild ways of his first coach and makes his way to the better tracks of Europe to improve his time.  
Wes Santee, an American college student, depends on his coach’s guidance at the University of Kansas. Enjoying the attention, he is the most likely to thwart the rules about competing as an amateur.

As they run faster and faster, they capture the world’s attention at a time when “people are looking towards athletes who are confident and colorful” and sports are beginning to be broadcast on television. “Technology, progress, and coincidence had all played a part in their story,” writes Bascomb.

Almost as interesting as the record-breaking feat and the nail-biting race between two of the men at the end of the book is the development of athletic training. In the days before elite training centers, teams of dieticians and physiotherapists, and the temptations of performance-enhancers, amateur athletes could only rely on myths, rumors, and each other.

Nostalgic for a time when cheering on a contender meant honoring someone’s talent, strength, experience, and sportsmanlike behavior, I for one will be watching the clock.  

Friday, January 13, 2017

"Barbie and Ruth"

Growing up, I had one Barbie doll. She wore roller skates and a neon yellow sports outfit. However, she was often relegated to the back of the closet since I much preferred playing with “My Friend” dolls.  

When my daughter was in kindergarten, she began asking for Barbies. Most were modeled after the Disney princess characters, but she also favored Barbies who were going to the beach. When we packed up to move last year, she gave the whole collection away. She has held on to her generation’s 18” doll.  

So I was curious, but not invested in, the story of Ruth Handler, the brains behind Barbie. Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her by Robin Gerber opens with Ruth Handler in court. Her company, Mattel, is being accused of shady financial practices.

This dramatic opening sets the stage for Handler’s life. Gerber rewinds from the 1970s to Handler’s early years in retail. We learn how her business acumen, along with the creativity of her husband Elliot, launches her into business.

After a few years in the toy business, Ruth decides to create a doll that allowed girls to “project their dreams of their own futures as adult women.” As Gerber says, “Boys and girls did not just play with different toys; they grew up to be men and women [like Handler] who created different toys.”

Just as fascinating as reading about Barbie’s birth, was learning the story of how toys grew from being a Christmas commodity to one that is sold year-round. Television played a big role in making this shift as it changed the timing of the sales and manufacturing of toys. Designers also had to take into consideration how a toy would look on television.

After leaving Mattel and struggling with breast cancer, Handler created her second business. She developed and sold a product called “Nearly Me” - a silicon breast prostheses.

Whatever your opinion on Barbie’s suitableness as a role-model, it’s hard to disagree with Handler’s. Despite her later legal troubles, she became a leader in a male-dominated field and created an iconic toy that has made it onto kids’ Christmas (and Birthday and Tooth Fairy and Last Day of School) lists for generations.