It was a dark and stormy night – that’s the famous cliché beginning many a scary story, but Hurricane Sandy brought us many of those nights.
By Whitney Clark
It was a dark and stormy night – that’s the famous cliché beginning many a scary story, but Hurricane Sandy brought us many of those nights. After a day of cutting up fallen trees or limbs, we headed inside where the nights were cold, dark, and long. Candles and flashlights and good-working fireplaces provided many of us with a little frigid, log-cabin ambience through the dinner hour, if you were lucky enough to have a gas stove (in our case, just stovetop).
Bedtime came a bit soon for homeowners who had lost power. I don’t know how Abraham Lincoln could study his law books by candlelight, but a good book, an LED flashlight, and warm blankets helped get me through the hours between dinner and sleep for ten days.
Books have always been the best escape engines from a stressful world — by candlelight or lamplight — and make the best presents.
What better title for an escape than “Elsewhere”? Except author Richard Russo was never able to escape from his eccentric mother. “Elsewhere” is a wonderfully readable memoir by the man who gave us “Nobody’s Fool” and “Empire Falls”, winner of a Pulitzer Prize. Growing up so close to his single mother gave him no time for perspective on their problems and led him to indulge and care for her all their lives together. It is both touching and aggravating to watch his mother make her dysfunctional way through the world.
Russo’s writing is so easy to read that you get swept along willingly and have to admire the author’s patience and persistence in the face of so many odds. We can learn good lessons on how to handle a difficult parent and still lead a great life.
A truly great life is portrayed in “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: the Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis,” by Timothy Egan. Curtis started his life in Seattle as a portrait photographer but soon became fascinated by individual Native American tribes and histories. He spent his life, his money, and his health pursuing the dream of completing twenty volumes on almost every Indian tribe in America. In order to get his work published, he was always raising money. He met Teddy Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and other famous men in pursuit of his ambition.
Curtis was an uneducated genius whose work and photographs have enriched knowledge and lore of Indian culture back into the fading fabric of their history and ours. He not only took pictures but also transcribed songs, stories, religious beliefs, and sociological aspects of the Indians’ world. The photographs are stunning, immortalizing great chiefs and tribal life.
I didn’t think I would like the new book by Kati Marton called “Paris — A Love Story,” but it is a great read. A former news correspondent, she escaped Hungary as a child and was married to TV anchorman Peter Jennings, and then to Richard Holbrooke, a diplomat and peacemaker. Her life has been filled with real adventure, despair, romance, grief, hard work, and travel — never a dull moment. I thought there would be too much name-dropping, but Marton grew into the VIP world through her hard work.
Her happiest days were in Paris. She has been both lucky and brave throughout many ups and downs. Twice widowed, she reached a life-changing plateau, searching for new adventures in re-establishing her own identity.
Marton is also the author of “Wallenberg” “The Polk Conspiracy”, and “The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Escaped Hitler and Changed the World”.
In her latest collection, “Dear Life — Stories,” Alice Munro brings us the well-drawn characters and exploits we have come to expect from this masterful storyteller. Always a plainspoken writer, her plots are realistic, involving everyday people you might run into anywhere. The stories seem subdued, the crises muted, the events sorrowful or bitter, but the characters try to move onward to improve their lives. The stories move forward and back in time, charting love affairs, disappointments, and challenges.
Munro is an acute portrayer of details and atmosphere that bring you right into the story. There is understated and often stark drama in her work, but the pitch of emotion is clearly there to move you. A mother loses her little girl on a train while paying undivided attention to a man she meets. A young woman has a brief romance with a doctor who leaves her at the altar. A man and woman are acquainted for years, then lose their spouses to death and divorce; their future may well be together.
Munro has been compared to William Trevor, which is an enormous compliment.
Forget James Bond — we have real, immensely evil villains to kill in the real world. “No Easy Day, The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden,” by Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer is the exciting story by a Navy Seal of the killing of a dreaded enemy. For ten years, the Seals trained and made ready for this moment. They demonstrated their competence for a sneak attack on Bin Laden’s compound in a practice mission for the National Security team before they were ordered to fly into Pakistan and execute the kill. The advance drills fine-tuned their silent approach and entrance into the enemy compound. The tension could have been overwhelming had the Seals not trained for years. “Mark Owen”, a pseudonym, makes you feel as though you are creeping up the stairs to Bin Laden’s bedroom, right along with the author and his fellow Seals.
“No Easy Day” is certainly an understatement as a title. There are photos and room plans included in the book. Owen dedicated his book and profits to the families of fallen Navy Seals, listed at the end of the book.
Barbara Kingsolver only gets better. She is such an excellent writer that she carries you along with her beautiful prose into a mythical plot of love and butterflies in Appalachia. In her new novel, “Flight Behavior,” her heroine Dellarobbia hikes into the midst of a swarm of Monarch butterflies on the mountainside, strangely fluttering in the wrong habitat. Could it be that global warming and monstrous rainstorms have forced them to seek out a different home, no longer guiding them to Mexico? She and her son meet the scientist sent to study this natural phenomenon and enter into his world.
Dellarobbia becomes concerned with the ignorant and selfish attitude of her community in the face of this unusual migration. She is also aware of the lack of interest her husband shows in their marriage. She thinks the vision of the butterflies look like “the inside of joy.” But all that misplaced beauty may be a warning of things to come, and she becomes deeply involved with the greater world picture. There are many depths to this story, so well done by Kingsolver once again.
How about a trip to the garden — the White House Garden? Michelle Obama’s mission has been to educate us all about gardening, to publicize the health and satisfaction gained by eating well, and to fight childhood obesity. Her book, “American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America”, contains wonderful color photographs of happy children making gardens, growing vegetables from seed, schools visiting the gardens, and chefs and community gardeners teaching them. There are also wonderful photos of the First Lady, working hard, and even the White House dog.
There are plans to follow, ideas to learn from, some history of the White House grounds, and even recipes. Learn how to make sweet potato quick bread, buttermilk blueberry Bundt cake, corn soup with summer vegetables, spinach pie, and winter salad.
And if you grow more vegetables than you can handle, donate them to a food bank or community shelter. The book is filled with the stories of many different kinds of gardens, like the one in an empty lot next to P.S. 102 in Brooklyn. One mother was quoted, “My son grew a green bean and then he got to eat it. He would never have eaten it if I had given it to him.” One green bean for mankind!
A fine present for the history buff in the family might be the new book by Jon Meacham, a former editor of Newsweek, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.” Highly readable, in easy-going prose, Meacham makes a case for Jefferson’s pragmatism in the face of getting political work done. “Our greatest leaders are like Jefferson — those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma.”
His early life is described, including some childhood and adolescent episodes. As a young man, he was very interested in women and quite a flirt. He pursued several young ladies strenuously before marrying a young widow, Martha Skelton. The book progresses through the story of his life with fascinating details of his prowess as a politician, thinker, writer, servant of the people, and very human hero. Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, both of which stand at the very heart of our democracy.
All of these books are available at Arcade Books on Purchase Street. Merry Bookmas!