Book Reviews

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May never comes but I think of May Day (May 1) and the no-longer-vibrant Communist Party with its call, “Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.” What to read this month of May? 

Kapital seemed too long. The Communist Manifesto seemed too short. Quotations from Chairman Mao seemed just right. 

The book is an unusual one for a classic. It is a collection of quotations, much like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, but with all quotations coming from one source: Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and its leader for another quarter century or so. There are a total of 427 quotations on 33 topics taken from speeches and writings by Mao from 1927 through 1964.

The book was first published in 1965, and published in translation in 1966. During the first decade of its existence, it was expected that every man and woman in China have a copy of the Quotations and that they consult and study it on a regular basis. Because of China’s large population, the book had one of the largest circulations of any book in its day. Take that, John Grisham!

Following Mao’s death in 1976, the book waned in popularity, though Quotations still has some hold on the generation that came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. 

In her latest collection of personal observations, truisms, and experiences, I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections, author Nora Ephron assembles more life lessons cloaked in pithy, relatable text.

Nora obviously had a few more things to get off her chest after her book I Feel Bad About My Neck. Being a big believer in a refreshing, recuperative rant every now and then, I gleefully listened for her latest editorials. Nora masterfully and lovingly rants about the things we would all rant about if we had the enormous platform or audience to listen.

While there ain’t no rant like an adorable Nora rant, the book’s title is what really drew me in. I have a morosely poor memory, and I was eager to hear what she had to say on the topic—so I could then promptly forget it.

Concerning her own fading memory, Nora concedes, “On some level, my life has been wasted on me. After all, if I can’t remember it, who can?”

(Preach it, sister!)

Nora produces a long list of celebrity encounters that she confesses she can’t recall anything about — like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. She also admits that the sole thing she recalls about her trip to the White House the evening Richard Nixon resigned was her stolen wallet.

(Hey, I’m not here to judge.)

Every reader loves discovering a first novel no one has read yet and passing it on to other readers who will share the delights of a brand new voice. Look what happened with Sara Gruen and Water for Elephants, Kathryn Stockett and The Help, or Garth Stein and The Art of Racing in the Rain. All became big word-of-mouth titles.

But how about those dusty gems languishing on the bookshelf that didn’t get the big publicity push? They are no less satisfying, delightful and thought-provoking. Readers interested in giving a second life to a first novel may find something worth passing on from these debuts that should have put their authors on the reading map.

Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine by Ann Hood

Two things were certain about Georgia Bottoms.  She was the undisputed belle of Six Points, Alabama, and the only thing she loved more than her appearance was her divine reputation. 

Georgia’s “chicken-fried” charm and “sweet-tea” hospitality also made her the natural choice as Six Points’ unofficial town hostess and goodwill ambassador, until one Sunday in church when the lid was blown off of her entire “gravy and grits” facade.

The seventh novel by Alabama native Mark Childress, Georgia Bottoms, focuses on a 30-something Southern belle who is trying to pretend, for herself and an entire town, that the old-fashioned ways of the aristocratic South still exist in god-fearing, gossip-spreading Six Points, Alabama. 

Just published in February of this year, Georgia Bottoms combines a group of stereotypical southern characters into a tale of crazy situations, sexual misconduct and deceit at its finest.  Georgia appears to be a well-off single woman from a family of old money. She faithfully occupies her pew at the Baptist church every Sunday, dotingly cares for her elderly mother with Alzheimer’s, and selflessly spends hours creating beautiful quilts which she sells at a local store for a bargain price. 

Sarah Vowell is obsessed with history. Also: death. Where does a person with these two intertwined fascinations go on vacation? The answer to that question turns out to be some pretty surprising places.

Vowell's sense of humor and wit keep her travelogue Assassination Vacation from reading like a college textbook on the subject of Presidential assassinations

Part travel memoir, part history, and with a keen eye for the ridiculous (including a self-awareness of her own almost religious zeal for the subject), Vowel's book manages to look into the history of the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley in such a way that keeps you on your toes.

Vowell is a native of Montana, but you’d never know it the way she clings to the East Coast. She doesn’t drive (phobia), so she considers one of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth’s greater faults to be “that he did not have the decency to die within walking distance of a metro stop.” In many ways, Vowell is herself a character as interesting to read about as the historical figures she portrays with such detail. 

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