Here, There, Elsewhere by William Least Heat-Moon
A fascinating collection of the author’s travel essays and articles, from 1983-2011. The author writes of the Great Plains, the Missouri River, Lake Superior, Japan, the south of England, New Zealand, the Yucatan, Lewis and Clark, Alaska, and more. The sheer variety of topics and settings in dazzling, but the articles are meant to be savored, read one of two at a time. Some of his travels are retracing trips taken as a child, when the lure of the highways was as strong for his parents as it clearly is for the author. The author also travels by boat, and history, geology, and food are common themes. Parts of this book reminded me of The Longest Road, by Philip Caputo. Here is a conversation between the two authors.
Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson
This is not the book fans would expect from award-winning science fiction writer Robinson. He is best known for his Mars trilogy, beginning with Red Mars, and for his Science in the Capital novels about global warming, beginning with Forty Signs of Rain. Other recent books include Antarctica and 2312. All of his books have been set in the future. Now he travels back tens of thousands of years, to the Ice Age. His main character is young Loon, an orphan and the reluctant apprentice to his clan’s shaman, Thorn. The book begins with Loon going on his wander, two weeks alone in late winter with no food, clothes, or supplies. He is supposed to rejoin his community at the next full moon, with stories to tell. He certainly has some memorable adventures, on his wander and over the whole span of this book. There are some similarities to Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children saga, and also to Jack London’s stories set in the Yukon Territory. Loon becomes a teenager, tries to memorize Thorn’s stories, travels to a clan gathering, falls in love, goes on a quest to the icy north, gets kidnapped, and learns to create cave paintings. The setting and culture are vividly described; I’d really enjoy a sequel or companion novel.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
North Korea is the setting for this frightmare of a book. North Korea is a Stalinist worker’s “paradise”. Everyone is a slave to the “Dear Leader”, “Kim Jung Il” at the time of the book’s writing. Slaves are forbidden to talk or communicate with anyone from the outside world. The citizens of North Korea could just as soon be living on the moon for all the interaction they have with the outside world. As far as they know, they are the premier country in the world. Their air, food, water, shelter, and life of the mind are far superior to the rest of the planet, and who is there to tell them otherwise? There is no otherwise. No one has ever defected from the DPRK. (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Why would anyone want to?
The Plot involves the life of Jun Do, a sort of everyman North Korean Citizen. Juan Do begins life as an Orphan in a state run orphanage. His father runs the orphanage but does not acknowledge his son. Life at the Orphanage is brutally hard even by North Korean standards. Jun becomes hardened by this life and even excels at it to become a “Soldier” or “Agent” trained to fight in the lightless clandestine tunnels that connect the north to the south. He is given pain training in order to survive brutal interrogations by the South Koreans, a nation of degenerates where hunger and famine reign. He becomes a radio man on board one of the DPRK smuggling ships. He learns through radio transmissions that the DPRK is a lie. This undergirds all of his subsequent activities, which includes sabotage at the highest levels of Government.
This book is very difficult to get through. The level of pain, and torture and extreme mental duress start to make the reader feel very depressed and hopeless. But, if you stick with this book the reward is infinitely worth the price.
Insurgent by Veronica Roth
Allegiant, the third novel by Veronica Roth, goes on sale today, and is sure to be a young adult bestseller. I recently finished reading Insurgent, the sequel to Divergent. This dystopian series is set in a future Chicago, and the architecture of the Loop makes a good backdrop for the series. Tris Prior, who earlier picked the daredevil Dauntless faction over the humble Abnegation of her upbringing and over the intellectual Erudite, has an exciting scene in Insurgent when she and others cross the Chicago river from underneath a bridge, and try to break into the Erudite headquarters. But I didn’t find this book as interesting or exciting as Divergent. There are so many characters that the author expects you to remember from the first book, and I didn’t. Tris feels guilty for an act she was compelled to take in the first book, and is still mourning some of her family. Her boyfriend Tobias wishes Tris wouldn’t be so reckless, frequently risking her life, but Tris doesn’t understand her own motivations. In this book, the Factionless are introduced, and are shown to be other than the powerless outsiders Tris expected. The factions are still alternately fighting, being controlled by simulations, and working together. It’s not uncommon for middle books of a trilogy to be the weakest, and I hope Allegiant is everything Roth’s fans are hoping for.
Alice Munro, Canadian short-story writer, recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is the only short story writer to win. Her latest collection is Dear Life: Stories. The last four stories in the book are semi-autobiographical. Most of her stories are set in small towns in southwestern Ontario.
The Man Booker Prize has just been awarded to Eleanor Catton for her new fiction book The Luminaries. At 28, she is the youngest winner. It is a long novel, set in Hokitika, New Zealand in the 1860s, during the gold rush.
Finalists for the National Book Award have just been announced. The award ceremony will be held on November 20.
Kushner, Rachel. The Flamethrowers
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Lowland
McBride, James. The Good Lord Bird
Pynchon, Thomas. Bleeding Edge
Saunders, George. Tenth of November
Lepore, Jill. Book of Ages
Lower, Wendy. Hitler’s Furies
Packer, George. The Unwinding
Taylor, Alan. The Internal Enemy
Wright, Lawrence. Going Clear
Finalists for Poetry and Young People’s Literature can be found here.
Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce
Tamora Pierce is a young adult fantasy writer known for her strong, usually female characters. This book follows after Street Magic, and is set before Melting Stones in the Circle Opens series. Briar Moss is a young plant mage, traveling with his mentor Rosethorn and his student Evvy, a stone mage. They are welcome in Gyongxe, which feels like a version of Tibet, where they meet the young god-king, and travel in the mountains. Rosethorn is invited to visit the Emperor Weishu in neighboring Yanjing, and tour his magnificent gardens. They quickly learn that he is cruel and greedy, and rescue one of his captives. Traveling with a caravan out of Yanjing, they learn that Gyongxe is to be attacked by Weishu’s armies, and feel compelled to help. Along the way, Evvy is captured and takes refuge with Luvo, a mountain deity. Rosethorn and Briar Moss are startled by small gods coming to life to protect their mountain home, and they learn how awful war can be, especially when they have to choose between using their powers to heal or helping win the battle. This is a darker book then many by the author, and I would suggest starting with Street Magic, or even earlier with the Magic Circle books.
The White Cascade by Gary Krist
February, 1910 was a very unfortunate month to be a passenger or an employee on the Great Northern Railway. A record-breaking blizzard trapped two trains high in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. A fast mail train and a passenger train were snowed in for several days at the small Wellington Station before disaster struck. On March 1, a huge avalanche swept both trains down the mountainside in the middle of the night. Through the stories of the survivors, telegrams, letters, diaries, and court records, Gary Krist brings the past to life, letting the reader get acquainted with the passengers, railroad workers, mail clerks, and even the railway management, and then hoping the people will escape before the avalanche or be rescued afterwards. A truly moving, fast-paced account of a major railway disaster and its aftermath, as well as a history of the Great Northern Railway.
The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
Reporter Lily Koppel, who wasn’t born until after the last Apollo mission, became fascinated by a photo of the astronaut wives in Life magazine, and wanted to learn their stories, which have never been told. The wives of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts were suddenly thrust into the spotlight after years of living quietly on drab military bases. The astronauts had training, all kinds of it, but the Mercury wives didn’t even get any advice from NASA on how to handle their new roles. Life magazine had exclusive access to the astronauts and their families, but their photos and stories didn’t tell the real story; the emotional side of the space race. The wives strove to be supportive while raising their children and maintaining their homes almost single handedly while worrying about their husbands when they were training or on a mission. They did meet monthly, in an informal group, and were always there to be supportive during missions or after a death, but didn’t share all of their fears and doubts until years later. Many of the marriages crumbled under the stress. Today, many of the astronaut wives are still friends, and are now telling what they remember of those stressful, exciting years when they rode in parades, went to balls and the White House, and were married to men who became instant celebrities.
Treecat Wars by David Weber and Jane Lindskold
On pioneer planet Sphinx, human settlers have recently encountered a six-legged species known as treecats. Developers planning to buy large tracts of forested land where the treecats live in family groups are hoping that the treecats are not declared sentient. As the reader quickly learns, they are not only sentient, they are empathic and telepathic, and can bond with humans. Their strong advocate, teen Stephanie Harrington, is away with treecat Lionheart for more training as a forest ranger, along with Karl, son of a recently discredited xenoanthropologist. Their friend Jessica, with treecat Valiant, and Anders, Stephanie’s boyfriend, are the only ones who can help when recent forest fires drive one clan of treecats out of their home territory and into the fringes of another clan’s territory, which reacts with unexpected violence. This is the third book featuring Stephanie and Lionheart, following A Beautiful Friendship and Fire Season. The series, written for teens, provides a fascinating look at another species that is very different from ours, as well as a coming-of-age story.
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
This is the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the Manhattan Project’s secret cities, and several of the women who lived and worked there. From 1942 until the end of World War II, several huge factories were constructed to enrich uranium to make plutonium for atomic bombs. At one point, over 75,000 people lived in a city that wasn’t on any map until 1949. Many of the workers were young women recruited from small towns across the south, and sent by train to a secret destination. The author interviewed dozens of these women, and focuses on ten of them, who worked a variety of jobs in Oak Ridge, including janitor, welder, machine operator, secretary, nurse, statistician, and chemist. Except for the chemist, the women had no idea about the nature of the project, as there was high security everywhere. Anyone who talked about their job faced eviction from the town. Housing, much of it temporary, was in high demand, from huts to trailers to dormitories. There was mud everywhere, yet there was also a sense of community. These young women worked and lived in an odd mix of freedom, away from families and home towns, and with restrictions. Some married couples couldn’t even live together, and there was racial segregation. When the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the community of Oak Ridge reacted with a mixture of shock, pride, guilt, and shame. They had helped end the war, but with a high cost. The author has tied the stories of these women together in the memorable story of a little known chapter of the war.