Review | The Sport of Kings :: A Book to be Reckoned With

The Sport of Kings
C.E. Morgan (2016)

I’m adding this book to my pantheon of very challenging pleasure reads, alongside Middlemarch (which I didn’t much like) and Moby Dick (which I loved.) The Sport of Kings will sit on the fence between them, at least for now, as I continue to mull over my reaction to this book.

Having read C.E. Morgan’s first book (All the Living, 2009), which came as an amazing surprise, I looked forward to revisiting her distinctive writing style. Kings, clocking in at over 500 pages, is an equally rich, rewarding, and challenging read, but it’s also at times ponderous and meandering. Spanning multi-generations of multi-characters, primarily set in the moneyed horse country of Kentucky (but also the impoverished inner-city of Cincinnati), this book reads like a hybrid of Faulkner, Melville, Steinbeck, and Shakespeare, as it grapples with race, class, entitlement, money, poverty, slavery, and the responsibility (and imprisonment) of one generation to the next.

None of the main characters are particularly likeable, but they’re human—complex, puzzling, and imperfect. There’s Henry Forge, who inherits his father’s Kentucky farm (land that has been in his family since after the Revolutionary War) and builds his fortune by switching from crops to thoroughbreds (over his daddy’s dying wish), hellbent on a quest to build the next Secretariat. Henry grooms his daughter Henrietta to be the next to add luster to the family’s good name. Henrietta is a tragic character, whose life is charted by her family tree before she’s even born. Then there’s Allmon, a bi-racial ex-con hired to work as a groom, who has a distant and unknown connection to the Forge family. The sun around which they all revolve is a thoroughbread filly named Hellsmouth, the likes of which has never been seen.

The Sport of Kings is a book that demands complete attention, and you want to give it, as you absorb each sentence with care. Morgan’s prose is a master class in description, lush and evocative without pretension, but for a book of this length, such verbiage can get a wearisome. While I marveled, for instance, at the way Morgan accelerates time, propelling a character through the years with the brevity of a page or two, like a verbal film montage, by the end of the book I couldn’t take another hyper-florid description of day’s end. Just set the dang sun already!

To say there’s a lot going on in this book is an understatement, as characters attempt to stake their claim while trying to escape and reshape their pasts, at times with the weight of the world’s problems upon them. Reading Kings is worthwhile but difficult, and it takes time. It’s a book you could get through quickly by skimming, but you don’t want to. The expressive writing invites you to slow down and savor the language; there’s just so much of it.

While not a great book (and I really wanted to love it), The Sport of Kings is a book that will spark interesting discussion. (I have no doubt it will be taught in American literature courses alongside the greats.) I keep asking others if they have read it, hoping to find an impromptu book discussion that will certainly enhance the reading experience.

Review |The Book I’m Currently Recommending to Everyone

A Man Called Ove
Fredrik Backman (2012)

When I reluctantly turned the last page and closed this book, I told myself I’d just finished the best book I’ll read all year. This December, when I’m compiling by annual recommended list for 2016, I’ll be extremely surprised if I don’t feel the same way.

This book, which I thought was going to be merely an entertaining, light read about a lovable curmudgeon, unexpectedly grabbed me by the heart and wouldn’t let go.

The eponymous sourpuss, who gains small comfort in policing the rules of his neighborhood, is continually irritated by just about everyone who crosses his path and in his droll internal monologue, Ove dubs them with descriptive names such as the Lanky One and the Pregnant Foreign Woman. He doesn’t mince words nor suffer fools gladly. Just to follow Ove as he goes through his daily routine would have been entertaining enough, but then a wonderful thing happens, and the book reveals itself to be much more than a delightful romp through Grumpville.

I don’t want to say any more, because to know too much gives away the pleasure of discovering Ove for yourself. And to know Ove, is to love him and his story.

Review | Journal of a Novel :: Witness to the Great American Novel

Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters
John Steinbeck (1969)

Of the books I read last year, East of Eden was my favorite. So, when I learned that author John Steinbeck had kept a writer’s journal in 1951, during the ten months he spent composing the novel, I knew I had to read it too. I’m glad that I did, and so close on the heels of finishing the book, as it perfectly complimented my enjoyment of the novel.

The journal, written as private letters to Steinbeck’s editor friend Pascal Covici, wasn’t intended to be read until after the book was completed. The entries were never intended for publication; they served instead as Steinbeck’s warm-up before each day’s writing and were only made public after his death. Equal parts daily diary, deconstruction of a novel, and glimpse into the mind of a writer working at the peak of his powers, Journal of a Novel is a fascinating companion to the process and the product of East of Eden. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys this book in particular or the author in general.

Review | The War That Saved My Life :: A Young Girl Finds New Life Escaping the Blitz

The War That Saved My Life
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (2016)

Ten-year-old Ada lives a lonely existence, locked away in a London apartment by a heartless mother too ashamed of her daughter’s club foot to let the girl be seen by others. When Ada’s younger brother Jamie is evacuated to escape the Blitz, she sneaks off with him and so begins their new life. The children are sent to a rural village, where they’re housed with Susan Smith, a grieving woman reluctant to take in a couple of kids. As Susan gradually emerges from her depression, Ada blossoms in a world where she’s not defined by her physical challenge. But years sequestered in a one-room flat, at the whim of her mother’s sometimes violent moods, has taken a toll on the girl’s ability to form new and loving attachments. Over time, as the feared bombing of London fails to materialize, relocated children are pulled back to the city by their families and Ada fears for her new-found freedom. Is it too much to hope that her mother will see her in a new light? All the while, the Battle for Britain looms ever closer.

Written with heart, sensitivity and an attention to period detail, this work of historical fiction for younger readers gives a genuine impression of life during wartime in an English coastal village at the start of WWII. The War That Saved My Life is emotionally candid; author Brubaker Bradley doesn’t shy away from complex themes of loss, abuse (both psychological and physical), and the conflicted bonds of family (that which you’re born into and that which you create.) Complete with triumph over adversity, horses, and German spies lurking off shore, this book would be the perfect adaptation for a Masterpiece Theater for young adults.

Review | Tambora :: The Eruption Felt Round the World

Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World
Gilles D’Arcy Wood (2014)

In 1815, Mount Tambora, a towering peak on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, roared to life, spewing an incredible geyser of fire and hot ash into the air as the earth trembled with a deafening noise. Fiery stones and sizzling rain fell from the skies, boiling magma flowed down the mountain, and hurricane-force winds blew. In a matter of hours, idyllic villages populated by tens of thousands of islanders were erased from the map. When it was all over, and Tambora had sunk back into itself, the island was left a charred wasteland and Tambora entered the history books as the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history.

In this fascinating and immensely readable book, author Gilles D’Arcy Wood explains how Tambora’s eruption rippled out over the next three years to affect weather around the globe and alter human history in locations as far away as Europe and North America. Continue reading

My Favorite Books Read in 2015

Took a while, but here it is, my 23rd annual recommended reading list. In no particular order, my favorite books read in 2015.

Review | East of Eden :: My Favorite Book of 2015

East of Eden
John Steinbeck (1952)

I savored every chapter in this classic of American literature, a tale of good versus evil for the ages. Years ago, I began reading the Steinbeck canon in chronological order, of which I’m about half-way through. East of Eden jumped ahead this past fall when my subscription series at Steppenwolf included Frank Galati’s stage adaptation, and I knew I wanted read the book before I saw the play. I’m so glad I did, as it allowed me to discover this wonderful work on its own terms.

Galati’s adaptation, like the 1955 James Dean movie before it, winnows down the 500-plus page novel to the climactic Cain and Abel story of Adam Trask and his twin sons Caleb and Aron; and while condensing the massive plot to a manageable night’s entertainment centering on sibling rivalry is understandable, it unfortunately discards much of what makes East of Eden a rich, rewarding reading experience.

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Review | The Martian :: Ultimate Escapist Fun

The Martian
Andy Weir (2011)

Outer space adventures are really not my genre, but I find survival stories intriguing, and on that front The Martian did not disappoint. Author Andy Weir obviously did his homework; The Martian is filled with enough science to feel like the real deal without bogging the story down. And quite the story it is. When a freak storm forces the scrubbing of a long-term Martian mission, the crew evacuates, thinking they’re leaving behind one of their own, already dead. But astronaut Mark Watney is very much alive and now he’s stranded in a hobbled base station, with a limited food supply and no way to escape or signal Earth. Watney calls on all his engineering skills and dark wit to survive until help can (hopefully) come to him.

As Watney bides his time on the red planet, visits back on Earth expand the character roster and clue readers in on preparations for Mark’s rescue, once his presence is known. Author Weir sharply draws his protagonist, giving him a dark sense of humor, in addition to keen Magiver skills and a never-say-die will to survive. As things progress, and one thing after another goes wrong, Watney never gives up and neither does the reader, willing to suspend enough disbelief (Watney is often a very lucky guy), to enjoy the wild, exciting ride. The Martian is a gripping page-turner, right up to its satisfying conclusion.

These Painted Letters Tell a Story

The House Tells the Story: Homes of the American Presidents
Adam Van Doren (2015)

I heartily recommend this book to those who enjoy: A) American history, B) American architecture, C) gorgeously illustrated art books, or D) all of the above. Painter Adam Van Doren visited fifteen homes of U.S. presidents where he was granted special access and spent extended time–then rendered each place in watercolor illustrations for a series of letters he wrote to his friend, noted historian David McCullough. Thanks to McCullough’s encouragement, the artist turned his personal project into a book.

Van Doren paints the exterior and interiors of each home, with the eye of a trained architect (which he is) and a wonderful attention to detail that illuminates the sense of place and character of each president who lived there. In his letters, Van Doren talks about his process and experiences getting to know each site, and through the work, each president.

As I’ve been to more than a few of the homes featured in this book, it was extra fun for me to revisit highlights of recent road trips. I would encourage anyone with an interest in cleverly presented U.S. history to spend time with this lovely book.

Double Book Review :: Secret Romance Under Pressure

The Paying Guests
Sarah Waters (2015)

Bel Canto
Ann Patchett (2005)

Quite by chance, I read these two books back-to-back and in reflection, I was struck by their similar themes and plot points. Another thing they have in common? I highly recommend them both as thought-provoking, strikingly well-written narratives, perfect for discussion.

Bel Canto, originally published in 2005, had a resurgence last year with the world premier stage adaptation of Ann Patchett’s novel by Lyric Opera of Chicago. Patchett based her story on a 1996 terrorist takeover of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru. She reimagined events by including an international opera star among the hostages. As the crisis stretches over months, a strange symbiosis between captors and captives develops, including two secret love affairs, one involving the soprano and a Japanese businessman, and the other between a star-crossed Japanese translator and one of only two female guerrilla soldiers.

In The Paying Guests, published in 2015, author Sarah Waters sets her characters in a London neighborhood in 1922. The Wrays, a middle-aged widow and her spinster daughter Frances, live together in the family home. The upper-class Wray family is greatly diminished; both brothers were killed in the Great War and their grief-stricken father followed them in death, leaving Frances to grapple with a mountain of debt and her mother’s care. Under such financial strain, their servants have been let go, and Frances sneaks in the housekeeping while her mother is out, so as not to witness the shame. Mother and daughter have consolidated to the first floor, making ends meet by renting second floor rooms to Leonard and Lillian Barber, a young married couple, genteelly referred to as “paying guests.” Despite their class differences, Frances and Lillian become friends and then lovers, and eventually the story takes a dark turn as secrets lead to tragedy.

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