Book Reviews

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For many men, the fantasy of escaping the drudgery of their daily lives includes strapping on a sabre, affecting an accent, a-swashin’ and a-bucklin’ through the rigging, clutching a buxom wench, a pint o’ ale and a parrot spewing colorful invective.

If that seems like too many objects to juggle, it’s his fantasy. He can handle it.

Women already know how to juggle (bring home bacon, fry in pan, it’s all part of a day’s work). All we need to escape is a couple of candles, a jar of aromatic bath salts, a good book, and a lock on the bathroom door. Historical fiction can be the highest form of escapist literature as it thoroughly transports the reader to a time and place completely different from current circumstances.

And a good historical novel can be the equivalent of a capful of the most decadent soap bubbles, removing the reader from a life slightly ordinary to one wholly (though temporarily) remarkable.

Go ahead, ladies. Choose your own adventure.

Storyville, Lois Battle

It wasn’t enough for Ernest Hemingway to be one of the largest literary lions of the 20th century. His written works brought him celebrity and his many marriages, dalliances, and adventures were fodder for tabloids.

There was no experience too much for Hemingway to take on. From his wartime experiences on the Italian front in World War I, covering the Spanish Civil War, and his observations of D-Day and the liberation of Paris. He traded lofty ideas with Gertrude Stein’s set in Paris, rode out the Labor Day hurricane in the Florida Keys, nearly died while on safari in the Serengeti, and awarded Fidel Castro a trophy in the Hemingway marlin fishing contest.

Hemingway lived as large as he wrote. Other writers have noticed this trait, and instead of writing biographies, they have chosen to cast Hemingway as a character in their own fiction. While Papa never takes center stage in these books, he often proves the most colorful and lively of supporting characters, and his fictional escapades fit nicely with his real ones. A reader could almost believe Hemingway really did help solve a crime, visit a boy’s school, or was the object of tumultuous affection between two female friends in Paris.

Toros and Torsos, Craig McDonald

Dorothy West

What is more appropriate for June than a wedding, or The Wedding by Dorothy West?  Published in 1995, it, together with the story collection, The Richer the Poorer, constitutes the final output from the Harlem Renaissance generation of writers.

West (1907-1998) was one of the last surviving members of that literary and artistic movement, which had its peak in the 1920s and 1930s. West had her entry into that world with a story, “The Typewriter,” which won second place in a literary contest in the 1920s.  She tied for second with Zora Neale Hurston, another of the women writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance. 

West was less influential as a writer than as an editor and publisher.  She got the magazine Challenge off the ground in 1934, and its successor, New Challenge, later in the decade. These magazines provided an outlet for many of the young writers of the Renaissance. Richard Wright got his start writing stories for these magazines. 

In addition to the two works listed above, West produced the novel The Living is Easy in 1948, and these three works are the entirety of West’s literary output.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht reads like a piece of allegorical art. It is a literary creation to be savored, debated, enjoyed, and interpreted differently by each person who experiences its mysterious creativity.

Set entirely in the war-torn Balkans, this newly-published novel begins with the voice of four-year-old Natalia as she describes her weekly trip to the zoo with her physician grandfather to visit the captivating tigers. While spending time together, her grandfather reads his beloved copy of The Jungle Book to her and tells her incredible stories filled with Slavic folklore and superstition. 

Eventually Natalia grows up and becomes a doctor herself. While she is away on a mercy mission to inoculate children at a distant orphanage, her grandfather dies alone under odd circumstances in a strange town. Natalia is puzzled by his actions and feels compelled to seek truth and understanding about his death. Slowly and with determination, she begins piecing together the details of her grandfather’s last days, but in doing so, she also puts together the pieces of his life and discovers a new understanding of who her grandfather really was as a man.

Three Cups of Tea may just be one of the most well-known works of non-fiction around today. It’s a tricky one to avoid hearing about. If you haven’t read it, someone you know has, or you’ve seen one of the thousands of interviews given by co-author Greg Mortenson.

And even if you’d managed to avoid all of that, the potential scandal unearthed by CBS’s 60 Minutes last month, alleging not just that portions of the book are fabricated, but that Mortenson mismanages the charity that allows him to build all these schools, has put the book and Mortenson directly into the public spotlight and headlines.

It was this hoopla, actually, that prompted me to pick up Three Cups of Tea. After hearing about it for so long, I wanted to decide for myself what to believe.

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