Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Pied Piper by Nevil Shute and Those Under-loved "Other" Books

I think I like reading those "other" books - you know, the less famous ones by an author who has written a really famous book that eclipses, you know, all their other work despite the other work's awesomeness. I mean, ever since it was required reading in one of my college history classes, I've loved The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque author of the extremely famous All Quiet on the Western Front, which, it happens, I haven't read (but plan to!). It seems like with Pied Piper I've managed the same sort of feat again. Nevil Shute is decidedly more famous for his other works like On the Beach or even A Town Like Alice, two more books that I've never even considered reading (but most certainly will consider now!).

In fact, I'd never even heard of Pied Piper until it was proposed by my book group's leader for our last read of the summer. To be quite honest, when I heard the title I immediately thought "lame." I have no idea why, considering I had not the faintest clue who wrote it or what it was about or really anything about it. When our book group leader summarized it before handing out copies, my interest was finally piqued, and I'm extremely glad of it.

The story starts out innocently enough when elderly John Sidney Howard decides to take a fishing holiday to Jura in France in an attempt to distract himself from the recent death of his son, a pilot in the RAF. Unfortunately, his timing in taking such a trip is uncommonly bad considering that he chooses to take this outing during early World War II when Germany is poised to invade France. As the threat draws closer, Howard obliviously enjoys the peace and fishing that the tiny hamlet of Cidoton has to offer. While there, he makes the acquaintance of an English woman and her husband, an officer of the League of Nations working in nearby Switzerland, as well as their two small children. Before long, the German threat can no longer be ignored, and Howard knows that he must make for England before France is overtaken. In fear, the two parents plea with Howard to take their two children, Ronald and Sheila, to stay with relatives in England while they remain to face whatever may come. Howard agrees, and thus begins their dangerous and unusual journey. When Sheila falls ill and delays their departure, Howard finds himself escorting the children across a country fraught with danger and facing the distinct possibility that it may just be impossible to get out.

Pied Piper is such a rich story. Howard starts out with two children and a certitude that surely France couldn't be taken and ultimately ends up desperately fleeing occupied France largely on foot with a growing troop of lost children. Really, it's brilliant Shute's occupied France filled with German soldiers busy making war and conquering juxtaposed with Howard and seven children under the age of eleven, children who have hardly the faintest idea of the danger of what's going on. Shute plays off their innocence against one of the darkest times in history as the children plea to see the tanks and the planes, even at their peril, happily swim in a creek as the Germans populate the countryside, and keep enquiring as to whether they will soon be riding the train with the sleeper car when, for British children, riding in a train at all could be perilous.

The stolid, grey-faced Germans looked on mirthlessly, uncomprehending. For the first time in their lives they were seeing foreigners, displaying the crushing might and power of their mighty land. It confused them and perplexed them that their prisoners should be so flippant as to play games with their children in the corridor outside the very office of the Gestapo. It found the soft spot in the armour of their pride; they felt an insult which could not be properly defined. This was not what they had understood when their Fuhrer had last spoken from the Sport-Palast. This victor was not as they had thought it would be.

As the old man traverses France in search of the best or, really, any way out, the children he meets and takes under his wing all have their own heart-rending stories and reactions to their situations that cast a different sort of light on the events of World War II. Along the way, Howard not only manages to fill up the void of his own history by attempting to escort the future out of a war zone, but also is re-acquainted with someone who will ultimately help him reconcile his own feelings about the loss of his son.

Pied Piper is a beautiful story with so many dimensions that I couldn't hope to chronicle here, nor would I want to, and risk ruining the experience of this story for others. It deals with so many aspects of World War II and occupied France that I'd hardly considered before and all in a story that's so engrossing that you barely realize the power of its insight until after you've nearly passed it by.

I've heard that this book is out of print (Boo! Bring it back!), but if you can get ahold of it at a library or used book store or wherever, you should definitely not pass it by. You should pick up a copy and send it to me so I can have one to keep get it and read it and, hopefully, love it as much as I did!

But wait - before you run out to find this book (presumptious much? :P), tell me: Do you have any favorite books that are the "other" books - the ones overshadowed by their wildly famous kin? If you do, I'd love to hear your recommendations!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm

I've been such a slacker with my book reviews lately. I'm reading good books, but my motivation to review them has been pretty minimal. Maybe because I'm eager to get back to those other good books I'm reading (and inevitably failing to review in a timely fashion). Right now I'm operating under the assumption that if I just sit down and begin to type mindlessly, a review will magically come to me.

Today's selection, I guess, is a little something different for me. Pete Fromm's Indian Creek Chronicles was a total impulse buy at a library book sale on the "Friends of the Library" preview night - also referred to as the snatch and grab. If it looks like it has any potential at all, you must snatch and/or grab it to prevent it from being snatched and/or grabbed by some other person. I spend a great deal of money at library book sales as a result of this tactic. The selling point for me on this one was its setting, the Montana/Idaho wilderness. Ever since driving to Montana in the middle of the winter, books revolving around Montana and South Dakota and the other less boring states my father and I drove through on our perilous journey have a much greater hold on me, and this one won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book of the Year. Despite my total lack of knowledge about this award, it somehow made the book seem that much more alluring. Anyhow, I agreed to trade it after reading it to someone at Bookcrossing, so I really need to get this review done and ship it out.

Midway through his college career as a wildlife biology major at the University of Montana, Pete Fromm's life takes a little detour. Fueled by his love of exploring nature solo, and most of all, by his college roommate's books full of romanticized feats of mountain men, Fromm makes a spur of the moment decision to apply for a job guarding salmon eggs. For seven months. In an isolated wilderness. In the dead of winter. More than anything, Pete Fromm wanted some mountain man stories of his own to tell, and getting paid to guard a couple million salmon eggs seemed just the way to do it. So, after one thoughtless phone call, endless supply shopping, and a few too many booze-fueled going away parties, incredibly amateur mountain man Fromm found himself preparing for months of total isolation with nary a clue as to what surviving alone in the wilderness would entail.

It's nearly mind-blowing that a tale that has at its core the unbelievable isolation and boredom of an Idaho wilderness winter would be so captivating a read. Fromm's stories and his descriptions of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness capture the rawness and cruel beauty of its winter that oft goes unobserved. With revealing descriptions of the scenery accompanied by powerful tales of wildlife surviving a hostile environment where survival seems impossible, Fromm reveals the dangerous magnificence of this wintry landscape in a way that few, if any, others ever could. Fromm himself is a sympathetic narrator as he seems to get on-the-job training in "mountain manhood." We go along with him as he learns hard lessons about what works and what doesn't, what it looks and feels like to hunt for food for survival, and, of course, that being a mountain man isn't nearly as fantastic as it seems in all the books, not to mention that he probably should have brought a few more than six books along when he agreed to spend 7 months virtually alone.

Fromm's constant inner battle between loving and owning his untouched wilderness and his desperate desire to get out and see another human face is all too convincing. When spring comes and people start entering the place he has come to think of his own, it feels, even to us, like an invasion of sorts. Foolish though his endeavor may have seemed at the outset, in the end, Fromm certainly emerged with the great mountain man stories he was looking for and much more.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book for a senstive, thoughtful, and appreciative perspective on a place and time that we could hardly hope to experience on our own. A warning to faint hearted animal lover: Fromm doesn't shy away from the details of his hunting or of the natural behavior of the wildlife he observes, which, of course, involves some killing and eating. I'll admit that there were moments that make me cringe, but I also think that to have left them out, Fromm would have done his memoir of his experience a great disservice since all of these instances seemed to be a crucial learning experience.

At one exposed bend of the river, where the wind had cleared the ice of all but the newest snow, I saw the trail of an elk that had run down the mountain and crossed the river. Its tracks showed how it leaped the last bit of riverbank, landing on what looked exactly like more snow. But on the ice, all hell had broken loose. The elk's front feet had shot to the left, while his back legs had done the splits. He held on for what must have been a long time, his feet making wild looping patterns on the ice, but then the snow had been wiped clean by the big broad side of the elk spinning over the ice.

I laughed, translating what must have occurred, and I wished I'd been just a few minutes earlier, that I could have seen the mighty, majestic elk take such a pratfall.


In completely unrelated news, Book Blogger Appreciation Week is fast approaching. I'm eagerly hoping to be able to make more time to be more involved with it this year considering what an awesome event it was last year. If you're a book blogger and you haven't rolled over there to sign up, get to it! It's an especially great week to be a book blogger. Many thanks to Amy and the whole crew that are busy making this year's BBAW what will be, I'm sure, another great success.

A few days ago, with surprise and glee I noticed an e-mail in my box informing me that I'd been nominated for a BBAW award in the category of Most Humorous/Funniest blog. Thanks so much to whoever nominated me! Even if that is all the other further it goes, it's an honor (and have I mentioned how surprised I was??) to be nominated. Thanks again for thinking I'm funny...and saying so! =D

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Recent Best

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

This week's is a pretty easy question. July's reading wasn't so great, but I read two fantastic books in June.

The first was The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips. This wasn't really a fast-mover of a book, but by the end I dearly loved the characters as if I knew them. I was sad, when I finished this book, to have to leave them. Phillips did such a beautiful job of giving each of her characters a unique voice and setting the stage for them to really come alive.

The other was The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen. For a long time I'd heard people rave about Dessen, but despite adding many of her titles to my wish list, hadn't managed to read a one. At long last, I opened up The Truth About Forever, and that was it - I was in love, too. I related so much to Macy, the main character, and Dessen has a real knack for getting at your emotions. This is one of the only books to ever make me cry several times in the reading of it, and I like it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Weekly Geeks: An Open Letter to W. Somerset Maugham

(This post is written in response to this week's Weekly Geeks prompt which asks whether we have or would consider giving a book or an author whose work we really did not appreciate the first go round a second chance.)

Dear Mr. Maugham,

I did not like your book, Of Human Bondage. In fact, I loathed it vehemently. My experience with said lengthy novel continues to color my opinion of you to this very day. While I've forgotten many of the finer details of the book's plot and characters, my feeling of loathing toward what is arguably your most famous and prestigious work remains intact. There is no doubt that Whatshisname (the narrator? or merely the main character?) was certainly enslaved to the severely unpleasant, ugly, and fittingly named Mildred. I have many crosses to bear in life, but I am thankful that I haven't been saddled with so dreadful a name as Mildred. I fear that any small chance I might have of one day acquiring a husband would certainly have been reduced to nil if my name were Mildred unless some fool like Whosywhatsit was lurking around throwing himself at my feet despite my utter lack of desirability. This is not meant to offend any girls who may happen to be named Mildred or to imply that they will not be desirable enough to engage in matrimony. Besides, who am I to talk being so firmly convinced that I will eventually end up a cat lady despite having a name that I personally don't find terribly off-putting? Which is not to imply that people who like cats and/or have off-putting names will be unfit for marriage, but...oh nevermind.

Ah, but I digress. Mr. Maugham, I now realize that your intention was for Mildred to be dreadful and for old Whaddyacallhim to be totally stuck on her in keeping with the title though I don't claim to know why, nor did or do I particularly care to explore this question. What I really can't abide by, then, is the mind-numbing boredom that your 600 or so page tome plunged my poor young life into (ack! It's a dangling preposition! Horrors!). I tried with stunning force of will to finish this book in hopes that I would find it an ultimately rewarding experience. Instead I suffered through 400 or so pages and gave up in a state of utter wretchedness.

Ah, but wait, my intention here, Mr. Maugham, is not merely to deride your masterwork of which many readers are great fans. My purpose is to consider the possibility that I could ever give you another chance to win back my love. Now, I realize that this book was in a category of assigned high school summer reading which automatically has the odds stacked against it. As an almost senior in high school and to this very day, I resent being told what to read in what should be my free time. I love to read, but I, like many, prefer to read books of my own choosing. So, then, it's possible that I disliked your book and your writing because I didn't want to see the good in it. I just wanted to get it over with and get back to the fiction of my own choosing. Perhaps the pain of a coming deadline for reading Of Human Bondage prevented me from even attempting to enjoy it, and perhaps my very youth at the time of my reading precluded me from understanding the depth of meaning in your prose.

Now, I can't say that I'll be in a rush to give Of Human Bondage another shot. Even now, the pain is still too fresh. That said, I have found myself more or less recently to be attracted to the possibility of reading several of your other works. I'll admit that the premise of the recently converted to film The Painted Veil does entice me as does the premise of The Moon and Sixpence. I must say also that Matt and his mention of The Gentleman in the Parlour definitely put chinks in the wall that I'd put up to prevent my having another negative reading experience caused by you. As an older, wiser, less time constrained version of myself who ever has the freedom to choose what she wants to read, I can see that perhaps...perhaps I may be inclined to give you another chance to win my love, Mr. Maugham. I know that there are many readers out there that seem to think that you could be capable of doing just that, and I sincerely hope they are correct.

Best Regards,

Megan S.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Megan Vs. Short Story: Round 3

Listen! Do you hear that? It's the sound of silence. The parents are grocery shopping. The 10 year old cousin with the new cell phone has departed for home. The dogs aren't barking. It's like a tiny miracle - which is accompanied by another little tiny miracle, I think I've read another short story I liked. Can it be? Especially, since, again instead of taking peoples' excellent recommendations, I've struck out on my own.

I decided to try another short story from the New Yorker on the train on my way to New York. It's only fitting, no? This one's from the July 27th issue (this year again!), and is entitled "The Five Wounds" by Kirstin Valdez Quade. P.S. If you don't know why it is that I'm "fighting" short stories - you can read the origins of this feature here.

The story opens on Holy Tuesday and finds thirty-three year old Amadeo Padilla preparing to be Jesus in an all too realistic re-enactment of the crucifixion. Amadeo has big shoes to fill because the last "Jesus" actually went so far as to have himself nailed to the cross. Amadeo is certain that if only he can suffer enough and focus enough on Christ and getting it all just right, he will be able to redeem himself from the mistakes in his life that land him with an ex-wife, a house he still shares with his mother, not to mention an eight months pregnant teenage daughter. A teenage daughter who happens to turn up on his doorstep on the very week when he's determined to be the best Jesus he can be. As the day of his "crucifixion" draws nearer and he struggles to come to terms with the way his life turned out and relate to a daughter who is nearly a stranger to him, Amadeo has a lot to learn about where the true path to redemption lies.

I was totally absorbed in this story. The train stops disappeared for me as I stepped into Amadeo's life if only for a few pages. He's not exactly a lovable character, and crucifixion re-enactment is a bit disturbing (as well it should be), but it's easy to understand the regrets he has in his life and how he wishes that this one thing would set things right. He and his daughter, Angel, are beautifully fleshed out in such a short time. She is endearing in her half-child, half-woman way, and it's actually suspenseful wondering if the pair's father-daughter relationship can really be restored even in the most inconvenient of circumstances. Quade even leads the reader to a conlusion which isn't spelled out to the letter, but isn't so veiled as to make the story feel totally unfulfilling.

Maybe there's hope for me and short stories yet.

P.S. You can read this one online.

(Oh, and by popular demand, I've decided to give myself the full point for the last one. Thanks guys.)

Megan: 2, Short Stories: 1

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Don't Call Me a Crook! by Bob Moore

Don't Call Me a Crook! is a memoir by the most unreliable of narrators. Despite not wanting to be called a crook, Bob Moore most certainly is one. An engineer by trade, his adventures take him all over the world where he finds himself "swiping" anything from diamonds to cash to a Shriner's sword. Moore's twenties really roared, and his experiences paint a picture of an era when lawlessness was a way of life. Bob's adventures take him to New York where he rips off a smuggler's diamonds, to Chicago where he cons a gullible woman out of her diamond ring, to a party yacht on the Long Island Sound, to South America where he makes off with funds given him for a supposed business start up, and even to China where the lawlessness seems to shock even him. There is no doubt that Bob Moore was a product of his time and had the experiences to prove it, but well, actually, there is some doubt, at least in my mind, about whether the stories he tells are true. After all, the very life he chronicles gives us reason to question everything he says. How can you trust the storytelling of a guy who gets by on lies and dishonest gain?

Whether it's true or not, though, Don't Call Me a Crook! is a rollicking adventure. While Moore's style of writing is a little stilted and hard to read, his tale is full of action and what seems like a particularly honest and unflinching view at the 20s. Few pages go by where Moore isn't getting into or getting out of some trouble. Admittedly, Moore's routine of getting "oiled" (drunk) and making trouble can get redundant, but at other times his experiences are laugh out loud funny. It's a bit like listening to your crazy old uncle tell stories after he's had a few, that is, if you have a crazy old uncle or someone of that sort. I found the middle section about his time on a party yacht with some stingy millionaires and their wild sons to be particularly enjoyable. The pages in this section flew by, but his time in China was a bit more of struggle to read given the daily atrocities and disregard for human life he witnessed and occasionally even perpetrated himself.

All in all I found Don't Call Me a Crook! to be an interesting and amusing memoir. Reading Moore's memoir certainly gives us a hardy sampling of what life could be like in 1920s in a variety of locations. Moore is unapologetic about his thoughts and actions, and so emerges a memoir that, even if not entirely true, still offers an unvarnished and often surprisingly honest-seeming look at life during quite a wild time in our history.

Thanks to Lisa at Online Publicist for providing me with a review copy.

Read other reviews at:

Books I Done Read
Things Mean a Lot
Bookfoolery and Babble