Library Director’s Notebook
The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb is about many things: love, freedom, courage, forgiveness, and food!
First, let’s talk about the food. This book, more than any other I’ve read lately ,is one that you cannot read without getting very, very hungry. The Beauty of Humanity Movement is primarily the story of Hung, a poor man who is rich in compassion, friends, and talent, especially the talent for good, satisfying cooking.
For many years Hung has made a hard-scrabble living selling pho, a kind of broth with noodles with other flavorings that is a staple in Vietnamese cooking. Primarily pho is a peasant food. Like all peasant foods it is simple and satisfying and not easy to make well. Pho’s very simplicity and its centuries-old link to Vietnam makes it a kind of cultural icon, loaded with symbolism and emotion.
In his life of poverty and struggle, Hung had known many artists, writers, and revolutionaries, cooking for them, learning from them, and ultimately preserving their legacies in his own simple ways. In fact his small pho shop had served as a kind of home base for many earnest and creative countrymen who sought artist freedom for what they labeled “the beauty of humanity movement”, a kind of counter balance to the rigid, state-dictated “art” of the communist party.
Hung himself, neither revolutionary nor artist, is a soft spoken man who has made a quiet impact on the lives of countless of his customers, friends, and neighbors. Like many, he has suffered terribly under the communist regime for decades, so when a young woman arrives to buy a cup of his pho, Hung is at first suspicious of her motives. She is a lovely Viet Kieu , i.e. a person born in Viet Nam but who now lives outside of the country. Her name is Maggie, and she is hoping Hung remembers her father, the artist Ly Van Hai who was part of the Beauty of Humanity Movement.
Hung is an old man and his memories are clouded. Still he tries hard to help Maggie, and in helping her, he ultimately finds his own way to redemption and forgiveness .
The language of this slender novel is as fresh and vibrant as the most clear-sighted poetry. Although heartbreaking at times, the story ends on a note of quiet triumph, as lovers reunite, a new romance begins to blossom, and two young men discover how they might make lives that are satisfying and successful, the type of lives their fathers and grandfathers could only dream about.
Library Director’s Notebook
Today we take for granted that the person elected to serve as the President of the United States will be surrounded at all times by highly trained, ever-vigilant professionals , willing to put their bodies on the line to protect the nation’s chief executive. Yet when Abraham Lincoln, newly elected president, made his way by railway across the country in February, 1861, a trip that was supposed to be triumphant, but which from its very beginning was fraught with danger and murderous intentions, he had no cadre of protective professionals assuring his safety every step of the way.
What Lincoln did have was a small group of trusted friends and advisors, several of whom had military training, but most of whom were just good friends, concerned about his safety and well-being, but not fully convinced that Lincoln’s life was in serious danger. One man was an exception, however, although his knowledge of the plot to kill Lincoln came to his attention while he was investigating another matter. That man was Allan Pinkerton.
Yes, that Pinkerton: the one whose name is synonymous with his famous detective agency, one of the earliest agencies in the United States doing undercover detective work in a professional way. Pinkerton’s careful work, his challenges, his mistakes, and his successes are carefully and intriguingly noted in the book The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower. Pinkerton was not alone in uncovering the plot to assassinate Lincoln as he made a stop in the tumultuous pro-slavery city of Baltimore, Maryland. Instead, Pinkerton relied on the level-headed, quick-witted actions of his operatives, including a female operative named Kate Warne, who used her impressive skills to infiltrate many gatherings, where she appeared in the role of a Southern rights sympathizer, to glean vital information about plans for the presidential assassination.
Yet even after weeks of painstaking detection work, work that often put the undercover operatives at great peril, the biggest task lay ahead—convincing Lincoln to change his itinerary and not make a train stop in Baltimore. Although the facts and the detective work proved without doubt that a large group of bitter secessionists (some reports alleged there were thousands in the plot) planned a deadly attack on Lincoln during his public appearance in Baltimore, Lincoln himself was extremely loathe to change his plans.
His reluctance is understandable. His itinerary of public appearances had been published in all the newspapers for weeks. He had used his frequent railway stops to greet his hoards of supporters and to offer conciliatory words to his detractors. To pass ahead of time through Baltimore, to use subterfuge to escape on a different train with no one knowing of his flight, could not help but look cowardly, according to Lincoln.
He was right. Although finally persuaded to change his plans and slip secretly by night through Baltimore into Washington, DC, Lincoln’s actions were harshly condemned as cowardice, not only by opposing Democrats and Southerners, but by pretty much all of his fellow Republicans, including some of his most stalwart supporters. The papers had a field day chiding and de-riding the President-elect. It would take the start of the bloody Civil war to finally draw attention away from Lincoln’s flight from Baltimore.
What if Pinkerton had not been able to persuade Lincoln to change his plans? Most historians, studying the documentation of the time, including Daniel Stashower, believe that assassination and the bitter national pandemonium that would have followed would have been inevitable. It is impossible for us at the distance of more than 150 years to imagine the Civil War period without the visionary leadership of Abraham Lincoln. Assassination would come inevitably, as Lincoln himself was all too well aware; but the efforts of Pinkerton, his operatives and other military and elected leaders and close friends helped to prevent the assassination of President Lincoln, for at least a few years.
To his dying day, Allan Pinkerton regretted that he had not been at Lincoln’s side at Ford‘s Theater that fateful evening of April 14, 1865. Yet the triumph of Pinkerton’s life was in 1861 when through his untiring efforts he was able to save President Lincoln. The Hour of Peril is a gripping, eye-opening exploration of the dangers of the presidency, which surely apply as much today as they did 150 years ago.
“Some will tell you to endure. You tell them you had rather prevail”.
Dedication to her daughters from Divining Women by Kaye Gibbons
Library Director’s Notebook
If there happens to be anyone around today who does not believe that “mental cruelty” is a reasonable grounds for divorce, they should read Divining Women by Kaye Gibbons as an irrefutable means of changing their minds.
In some ways, it does not matter that the book is set at the very end of World War I when women in America did not have the vote, and married women could be committed to hospitals and mental institutions, pretty much on the whim of their discontented husbands. The cruel use of brutal threats, insinuation, insults, and sneers is not limited by country, century, race, sex, or age. Yet the setting of this novel as the world war ends and the flu pandemic begins is surely not just happenstance.
Young Mary Oliver ,the narrator of Divining Women, was raised in a well-to-do family of strong women and loving men. Mary is therefore totally unprepared for the abuse she witnesses when she arrives in Elm City, North Carolina to help her Aunt Maureen safely through a risky childbirth. Mary soon learns that her uncle Troop exercises an unhealthy at times sadistic power over Maureen that threatens her very sanity and the life of her unborn child.
Troop himself has had a bizarre upbringing. Early in his life his mother, Nora, married to Mary’s grandfather, Tobias, left her husband in high moral dudgeon , furious that he had taken a sudden yen for unconventional ideas, including nudism! For the rest of her life, Nora wrote regular, scathing letters to her ex-husband, demanding ever-increasing amounts of money to support her lavish lifestyle and accusing him and his new wife and family of ruining Troop’s life and depriving him of his birthright .
As a result, her son Troop is indeed bankrupt, not in funds but in feelings. Brought up to believe himself grossly slighted and unloved, Troop has decided to withhold love from the world, and from none more ruthlessly than his tender and loving wife Maureen, whom he mentally tortures in various subtle and unsubtle ways.
The stage is set for death, whether through war, plague, or severe mental duress. Divining Women is about damaged women who manage to remake their lives even in the face of overwhelming odds.
Library Director’s Notebook
At Home by Bill Bryson is a book with a rather dull title; but that is the only thing that is dull about it. In fact, I have rarely read a book so full of interesting information, including wide ranging topics running the gauntlet between science, literature, politics, art, discovery, child raising, personal hygiene, and the love affairs of the rich, famous, or the infamous, to name only a few.
Bill Bryson has developed his own inimitable style via his very popular books including A Walk in the Woods and Notes from a Small Island. That style is a wonderful melding of popular science, solid research, and a quirky, at times startling sense of humor that leavens even his most detailed or complex descriptions.
At Home starts with Bryson’s appreciation of his new home, a former Church of England Rectory in Norfolk, England. Quite by accident he discovers a hidden doorway that leads him to a tiny viewing space with a panoramic view of the surrounding pastoral countryside. This stirs his writer’s imagination and begins his quest for information about houses, dwellings, and habitations of every kind. With his curiosity thoroughly aroused, Bryson begins to systematically examine a typical home, using his current home as a launching place, taking each living space, one at a time, to discover its earliest beginnings.
What we get as a result of Bryson’s tireless research is a lengthy, minutely detailed and delightfully entertaining social history of the creation and evolution of homes. For example, where did the concept of the kitchen, or the dining room, or the bathroom spring from, back in the forgotten centuries of human development? In fact, when did the whole concept of “home”, the personal property and pride of individual families, take hold?
Step by step, or rather, room by room, we travel with Bill Bryson back through time to meet the inventors and the visionaries, the noble and the humble, the creators and the crooks, responsible for all the comforts, conveniences, and quirks we now find in our modern homes. For example, we learn about the beginnings of bathtubs and bathing, glass and windows, toilets and sewers and the genesis of just about every square inch of a typical house that has ever been conceived or created.
This is an admirable book, overflowing with information, but it is also an amusing, laugh-out- loud, compulsively readable book. Whether your interests are in history, science, humanities, social and political history, architecture, archeology, or the arts, this book will become an instant favorite, something to read through with pleasure again and again—in any room of the house you choose!
Library Director’s Notebook
One of my resolutions this year is to get out of my comfort zone with reading material. If left to my own devices, I tend to gravitate towards literary fiction a la Margaret Atwood or quality historical fiction by writers like Andrea Barrett , mysteries of all kinds, , and non-fiction books about health, history, gardening and nature study.
There is certainly no dearth of choices in these categories of reading! Still, I want to shake my reading style up a little bit, and I think I managed to do so with the book I just read, Unbroken by Laura Hllenbrand.
Hillenbrand is best known for her vigorous telling of the story of Seabiscuit, the remarkable thoroughbred racehorse who overcame the odds and captured the hearts of millions during the Depression. To Unbroken, Hillenbrand brings the same spirit of unabashed wonder, willingness to dig deeply, and an almost poetic eye for vivid, and at times scathing detail.
This is a story told in distinctive parts of one man’s extraordinary life. Louis Zamperini earned his place in the history books as a record breaking Olympic runner. But that is the least exciting part of his life. As a child, before he discovered the joy and rewards of running, Louis could only described as a terror, a young, delinquent boy on a fast course to personal disaster. It is hard to know where these behaviors sprang from: Louis seems to have been raised in a close, loving family and he had as a role model hia older brother Pete , loved and admired by all. Well, perhaps sibling rivalry was part of the problem!
Urged on by his brother, young Louie trained with fierce pride and determination to break running records held by older, more experienced, and better trained athletes. His special hopes were pinned on the 1940 Olympics, but a certain event called World War II put an end to those dreams.
Shot down in his fighter plane in May, 1943 Louis and two other airmen endured unbelievable odds, adrift at sea without food or fresh water, tormented by sun and storm, and unnerved continually by circling sharks, for 47 days . Yet their eventual capture by the Japanese and the subsequent years of torture, starvation, and humiliation made those days adrift seem more like daydreams than nightmares.
Reading this book is often painful. It is deeply disturbing to read of the brutality that man can inflict on his fellow man. Many Allied prisoners died of starvation, beatings, exposure to bad weather, and disease in the Japanese prison camps. Countless more died of despair and humiliation, which can break a human being just as completely as lack of food or raging disease.
Louis Zamperini miraculously survived, but so many of his friends and comrades did not. He returned at the end of the war to the U.S.A. to loud acclaim and many honors, yet even his family did not know about the parts of his mind and spirit that were savaged and broken, perhaps never to heal.
For all the horrors described in this book, there is a kernel of hopefulness and of deep respect for what human beings can endure through their strength of spirit and their shared humanity. Louis Zamperini deserves this astounding retelling of his life; yet so many others lived as honorably and endured as much, perhaps with only an unmarked grave to note their passing. The great thing about Unbroken is that it never fails to recognize the sacrifices of many lesser or even barely known soldiers who gave everything they had and more than they could have imagined. Their legacy is truly the unbroken chain that unites us all.
Library Director’s Notebook
“Lions led by donkeys”. This scathing, often quoted rebuke refers to the brave British ground troops, drawn from all parts of the vast British Empire, who died by the hundreds of thousands in Europe from 1914 to 1918, vainly trying to follow the absurd and arrogant commands of their generals.
We are drawn to books and movies about World War I, such as All Quiet On The Western Front or Gallipoli because we cannot shake our incredulity and heartbreak about this war. How could it have happened; why did no one stop it; why was it allowed to wreak such havoc over the world and slaughter nearly an entire generation of young, idealist men, not to mention numberless civilian casualties of war?
These questions are not answered in A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry. Like all truly skilled writers, Barry does not set out to answer questions, or even to pointedly ask them. Instead he brings us into the lives of Irish soldiers who have volunteered to help their traditional enemies, the English, with the war in Flanders; hoping that by serving the English cause in battle, the English will in turn keep their promise to give home rule to Ireland after the war. Yet, whenever “The Irish Question” was discussed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century by either English or Irish, there were a multitude of tough choices, none of which satisfied or appeased everyone.
Willie Dunne is barely eighteen when he joins His Majesty’s forces to fight on the Western Front. Like so many others, he enlists in a burst of idealism, certain that he can make a difference and help win the war in a few months or so. The brutal reality and the grizzly inhumanity of war in the trenches all too quickly lead to Willie’s disillusionment.
Willie might well be “every man”. He is not brilliant, well connected, handsome, or well educated. He is warm, compassionate, fun loving, sincere, and above all, young. Like so many young men, his fondest hopes are to earn the respect of his father, the love of his sweetheart, and a good, honest way to make a living—simple desires, for a simple man, in a bitter and war- torn world.
A Long Long Way is written with sterling simplicity and astonishing beauty, both of which make for a short novel so absorbing, so tender, and so powerful that you are left shaken and heartbroken by the end. Willie becomes real to the reader; not a fictional character, but a breathing person. His fate is a matter of the most immense importance. This is not a light-hearted book, easily forgotten; it is a heartfelt book about a decent man, worth reading and worth remembering.
Library Director’s Notebook
November , 2012
It has always interested me that during some of the worst years of the Great Depression many of the most popular movies were set in fancy nightclubs, swank restaurants, penthouses, and mansions, with uniformed servants attending to the sundry needs of stylishly gowned and tuxedoed guests. Untold numbers of Americans were standing in soup kitchen lines, loading their remaining possessions on to truck beds, or selling apples on street corners; yet they flocked to the movies, when they could, to breathe in the rarified atmosphere of their more fortunate fellow Americans.
In Rules of Civility, the debut novel of Amor Towles, it would appear that the pivotal year of 1938 was one in which the threats of war in Europe seemed far away and not particularly interesting to the young, beautiful, and wealthy; while the importance of getting on the right guest lists was a matter of world-shaping import. When Katy Kontent and her new friend Eve, two young women with modest Mid-Western roots, decide to spend the last night of the year in 1937 in a jazz bar in New York City, they do not know that a chance encounter with a picture -perfect gentleman of privilege named Tinker Grey will change their lives forever. Both young women are immediately smitten with Tinker who seems at first perhaps a tad more taken with Katy. But a car accident shifts the balance of the equation quickly and helps shape all three lives in unexpected, not always pleasant ways.
Caught up in social whirl of status seeking and ladder climbing, many of the characters in Rules of Civility seem shallow and unworthy of a second glance, despite their good looks. However, Katie and Eve are made of finer stuff. Both struggle to maintain their inner codes of honesty and self respect, although honesty and self respect are not usually valued currency in the social circle they strive to inhabit. Yet some men, such as Tinker and several of his friends, seem to question their lives of privilege, and struggle to break free of it.
As in Edith Wharton’s novels of an earlier century, Rules of Civility deftly describes a social world where appearance, good breeding, and money represent the apex of accomplishment. In this well-heeled world, civility is valued above honesty, and indifference trumps compassion. Beauty more often than love, conquers all ; and the beautiful people are content to have it so. In the end, however, no matter how beautiful the people, regrets, whether based on chance or choice, can linger for a lifetime. Read this book for an intriguing glimpse into a sparkling world, where you can have the best of everything, yet still miss out on anything that matters.
“What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small, slight sound.”
~ From On Canann’s Side by Sebastian Barry ~
Library Director’s Notebook
Lilly Bere is the 89 year old narrator of On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry. Having lived through “the troubles”, before, during and after WW I in Ireland , the Great Depression, World War II and the Vietnam war, Lilly knows about heartbreak, hope, and the toughness needed to survive both.
As a young woman, Lilly falls in love with an Irish soldier just returned from fighting the Great War, who becomes a Black and Tan, and therefore considered by many Irish as a traitor. Her father is a chief superintendant of the Dublin police, whose own life is always in peril. After an aborted IRA ambush, with a contract on their heads, Lilly and her soldier- fiancé flee to America, hoping to start a new life, with new identities. But they soon discover that vengeance has a long arm and an even longer memory; and in an example of bitter irony, they learn that in trying to protect them, Lilly’s father has led their enemies to them.
To say the writing in this book is exceptional is truly an understatement. The writing is remarkable; the story plangent and powerful. As I read , I kept stopping ,even during dramatic scenes in the story, to note with great pleasure how exquisitely fresh the writing is. Curious, I flipped back to read something about the author and discovered that not only does Sebastian Barry write novels, he is also a poet.
On Canaan’s Side is told entirely through Lilly’s journals. Passing seamlessly between her current journals and the memories they evoke, the reader is drawn deeply into the secrets of her life, her joys and sorrows, her friendships and betrayals, her youth and old age. We discover through her memories what it means to love in times of great danger and what it means to keep loving even when the object of our love has changed irrevocably. We know , from the very beginning of the book, that Lilly has just received a blow so intense, she does not want to live. Yet we come to care about her so much that we hope earnestly the last page will not be the end for Lilly.
This is a relatively short novel, so short that it deserves to be read through, at least twice, to savor the power and the passion of it. The heart break of an eighty nine year old may be a quiet sound, but it resonates with the throb of every compassionate reader’s heart.
Library Director’s Notebook
When we think of Americans in Paris, we are most likely to recall the Americans who flocked to Paris in the 1920’s like Hemingway or Fitzgerald; or perhaps we think of American troops liberating Paris to the cheers of ecstatic crowds; or maybe we even think of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in the classic ballet from the award winning film An American in Paris. What most of us are not likely to think of is the steady flow of eager and earnest Americans who came to study, enjoy, explore and grow as artists, scientists, doctors, and diplomats during the nineteenth rather than the twentieth century, particularly from the 1830’s to 1900.
In his book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough explores the rich personal triumphs and tragedies of those Americans who left their very young country, busy with its westward expansion, economic growth, and its unique experiments in democracy, to learn what they could from the older more accomplished traditions and discoveries of Europe, and in particular, of Paris.
Because this is a book by renown and highly respected historian David McCullough, you can be certain every major, and many minor personages, including those of iconic proportions will be treated with respect that never borders on sycophancy and will come to life as flawed, fascinating, and very human individuals.
In The Greater Journey we learn of the family life of Mary Cassatt, the friendship between James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel Morse, the medical studies of Elizabeth Blackwell and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the literary life of Henry James, and the epiphany of Charles Sumner that would shape his lifelong abolitionist fervor. Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Singer Sargent and a host of famous and not so famous painters, sculptors, musicians, physicians, statesmen, and just plain tramps and tourists rubbed shoulders with the great, the royal, the rebel, and with each other in Paris in the nineteenth century. Except in the case of the most resistant or indifferent, Paris changed the lives and the thinking of thousands of Americans who brought back new ideas, dreams, and ambitions that helped shape America for decades to come.
The Parisian architecture we all take for granted, included the Arc de Triumph and the Eiffel Tower were conceived and built during the nineteenth century, as hoards of Americans came to admire and appreciate, and only rarely to criticize. Political upheaval, revolution, and civil violence seemed not to shake the doughty Americans from their determination to learn from their experiences and work in Paris and return to America, the better for it. America, welcoming back its sons and daughters, was certainly made better for it as well.
The Greater Journey is wonderfully readable, exhaustively researched, literate non-fiction for lovers of history, biography, travel, or just lovers of well written, engrossing books.
LIBRARY CLOSED MONDAY, AUGUST 13
Barrington Library will be closed Monday, August 13, 2012 in observance of Victory Day.