Book Reviews

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If your only experience of Beowulf is the 2007 3-D film, there’s one thing you know for sure – Grendel’s mom is hot! That film rather imaginatively recast the monstrous swamp mama as Angelina Jolie. I like eye candy as much as the next moviegoer, but the film’s creators were quite misleading.

Hattie heard the strangers approaching long before they reached her father’s tobacco farm. The groan of straining wagon wheels. The thudding of horses’ hooves on the hard Missouri dirt. And as she lay worrying and waiting for what was to come, she looked out of her upstairs window until she finally saw their shadowy shapes form at the edge of the yard.

She crept out of bed and headed downstairs, wondering who would visit their home in the middle of this stifling August night night. Was it a neighbor in need or a band of raggedy soldiers seeking shelter?

Hattie, the heroine of Susan Salzer’s dramatic Civil War-era novel Up From Thunder, was about to find out.

Outside, she heard men yelling and Pa’s scuffled footsteps on their warped wooden porch. The front door flew open like it had been forced by an invisible wind, and a group of scruffy men with guns hurried a fellow rider inside. They marched him up to the tiny attic with a large trail of blood following behind them.

Through the light of Pa’s flickering lantern, she looked at the face of the wounded man as they carried him by. He was pale, but handsome, with sharp cheekbones and a boyish face. She had no idea who he was, and she turned to Pa quizzically. He looked back with worried eyes and whispered, “Hattie, I am going to need your help.”

This past October, the Barista’s Book Club voyaged from the Plaza Branch to the darkest heart of South America via The River of Doubt, a fascinating account of Theodore Roosevelt’s exploration of the Amazon River.

This book not only offers a riveting characterization of Roosevelt, it evokes the mysterious untamed beauty of the Amazon Rainforest in the early 1900s.

Kansas City-based author Candice Millard's description of the Amazon is mesmerizing in its historical and geographical detail.  You feel transported to this incredible place with its endless amounts of rain and thick, almost impenetrable foliage, in which the most interesting inhabitants thrive. Millard describes flesh-eating piranhas, wild monkeys, deadly snakes, endless species of insects and unbelievably primitive indigenous Indian tribes, who wear little to no clothing, shoot poisonous arrows and practice cannibalism.

If you’re looking for a book to match the dreary mood of autumn, and you aren’t afraid to look at life in fierce, intense ways, you might consider Sourland. This latest collection by the great Joyce Carol Oates gives us 16 stories that unflinchingly speak of violence – both physical and psychological. 

The tales are full of rich details and observations told in such a calm, matter-of-fact manner that it is hard to look away from their horror. Be warned, this is not a book for the faint of heart.

As the stories build, the reader develops an imminent sense of dread for the characters, who don’t seem to see the horrors creeping up on them – widowhood, rape, abduction, and the twisted acts of internal cruelty we do to ourselves when we’re left alone.

However, throughout Sourland, there is a growing sense that perhaps the characters not only anticipate but are even almost masochistically expecting their fates.

Though the lives of the characters are unapologetically dark, the details and surroundings are described in beautiful ways. Despite its stern subject, Sourland is literary and eloquent.

A book that highlighted the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 caused some debate of its own at a special Kansas City Public Library book discussion of Theodore White’s narrative nonfiction classic about politics, The Making of the President 1960.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the debates that ushered in modern political campaigning as we know it, and the Library obtained special permission to screen the debates for the public. In conjunction with the screenings, there are multiple discussions of The Making of the President 1960. For the first meeting, White’s classic work of political reporting drew many interested readers who discussed this turning point in American political history and enjoyed comparing it to how candidates run campaigns today.

The first gathering was led by former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, Kay Barnes. Ms. Barnes started the dialogue by saying she relished the opportunity to reread a classic she first discovered almost 50 years ago. She shared a memory of working in Nelson Rockefeller’s Kansas City campaign office and another about waiting for over an hour on her first election day to cast a vote for John F. Kennedy.

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