American Covenant. A history of civil religion from the Puritans to the present, Phil Gorsky, 2017
Following are excerpts from a perceptive review on Goodreads:
"Philip Gorski is one who has looked at the history of America's culture wars and asks if there is another alternative to what he sees as the extremes of religious nationalism and radical secularism. He believes that there is and that it has a long history. He proposes that there may be a form of "civil religion" that is not invidious and that it is critical that we retrieve and strengthen a tradition that he believes has been at the center of our national life and combines what he calls "prophetic religion" and "civic republicanism." He calls this "prophetic republicanism."
Gorski's book provides, on a high level, the kind of education for citizenship, for republican virtue (not of the party-type) that we desperately need. It is the kind of education needed with our rising generation, as well as for all who sense that neither of the extremes of our culture war offer a good vision for our national life. It offers a substantive alternative and not a bland compromise to our polarized discourse. I only hope someone notices."
Churchilll's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. The maverics who plotted Hitler's defeat, Giles Milton 2016
This is a popular account of British guerilla activities during WWII. Derring Do and all that. One reviewer found the book to be only lightly referenced Still.. following is an excerpt from one review from Goodreads:
"The author provides us with a history of the British group known as MI(D) – Military Intelligence Destruction. This group was authorized by the top echelons of British government in the early days at the beginning of WW II. Its creation involved a lot of soul searching among the members of the cabinet because their purpose was to destroy assets of the German military force in “ungentlemanly ways.” It is what we term guerrilla warfare today – a term a far cry from the polite posture of the British people. It finally dawned on the government that fire must be fought with fire when dealing with the Nazi threat. The people recruited early on all had special skills beyond the normal military needs. There were experts in explosives, aeronautics, silent killing, etc. Mr. Milton lays out some of the main efforts of this group through the war – many of which were kept as top secret until very recently. The group was responsible for ‘limpet’ bombs, bombs which were placed against enemy ships and held there by special magnets and would explode upon proper activation. They also developed some clever weapons that were used against submarines."
Young AdultThe Sun is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon, 2016
Two teens meet by chance in New York City. She is from Jamaica and her family, after many years of being here illegally, is facing immediate deportation. He is son of a Korean family and is being pushed to take up medicine at Yale. She has one day to delay the deportation He has one day to make her fall in love with him. The story is a switch: She is the scientist who wants to attend a university. He is the poet who has no interest in medicine. These highly engaging kids exploring love: of each other, of their families, of their cultures, of their country. Incidental characters all have interesting back stories: the security guard who is on the brink of suicide, the lawyer whose first love is not his wife, the brother whose first love is not himself. Parents and their demands and aspirations. The backdrop is New York City, and you can feel the city. Do you believe in Fate? God? Chance? I enjoyed this book. Good writing: the plot is interesting, the characters engaging and the author knows how to use the English language The book was written for young adults, but themes have far broader application than 'young adult,' especially in these days. Makes one think. Read it with your teenaged kids: you'll have a good time comparing notes.
Moonglow, Michael Chabon, 2016
I will buy every book Michael Chabon writes if only for his wonderful use of the English language.
Following are excerpts from one Goodreads review:
"Michael Chabon pulls off a hybrid memoir and a contested fictional multigenerational family history peppered with anecdotes and stories from his heavily medicated grandfather on his deathbed. Chabon unashamedly states its fictional roots and perhaps questions the concept of a factual memoir, how much of a memoir can be said to be true when peoples' memories are notoriously unreliable?"
"I was entranced by the lyrical prose and the vivid metaphors in the narrative. The stories of efforts to strangle Alger Hiss with ripped out telephone cables which lands the grandfather in a New York prison, blowing up bridges, sex, war time espionage and efforts attempting to locate Nazi SS officer Wernher Von Braun in Europe only to find he ends up working for the US space programme, There is the obsession with rockets and a lovely story of the exploits of Ramon the cat and the hunt for the snake. It appears the outpouring of tales is chaotic and non linear, but this is often the nature of memory, going back and forth in time. What is particularly tender and heartbreaking is the recounting of the love and loyalty he has for Chabon's grandmother, her desperate and traumatic history and the consequent mental instability that ensued. There is the examination of what constitutes family with the inclusion of non blood family members. "
Like this reviewer, I will not soon forget this book!
The Motion of Puppets, Keith Donohue, 2016
I picked up this book at Toadstool because of its intriguing title. Creepy puppets? Bring 'em on!
Reviews of this book were mixed. Here is one of the good ones
""Never enter a toy shop after midnight" is a warning that appears early in this lovely horror story. Unfortunately, it comes too late for acrobat Kay, working for the summer in Quebec City and fascinated by the weird little shop filled with puppets. Returning home to her husband late one night after a performance, she fears she is being followed; as she passes the toy shop, she finds it unlocked and enters. By the next morning, she can be measured in inches, not feet, and is one of the eerie collection of once-human puppets. Meanwhile, her French professor husband Theo is beside himself, looking for her over and over with no success until months later, he learns of a puppet show and sees a news clip of a puppet who looks remarkably like Kay. And since this is a re-imagining of Orpheus and Eurydice, is there a chance he can save her? Very satisfying horror novel, when so many ultimately disappoint me by laying out all the tricks. Pacing here is relentless but not really fast, as there are lots of clues to investigate and we follow Kay's life in the puppet troop and Theo's endless search in alternating points of view; involving, compelling characters; intricately plotted, inventive story line that's layered with references to classical roots of Orpheus and Eurydice tale and fascinating information about photographer Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer famed for his photographs of animals in motion (proved that a galloping horse does have all 4 feet in air); "hypnotic prose"; suspenseful, nightmare tone. Narrator Bronson Pinchot's performance is a fabulous way to experience this fine story."
The Sojourn, Andrew Krivak, 2011
This little book was a National Book Award Finalist and is particularly relevant on the 100th anniversary of USA entering WW I.
Here is the publisher's blurb:
"The Sojourn is the story of Jozef Vinich, who was uprooted from a 19th-century mining town in Colorado by a family tragedy and returns with his father to an impoverished shepherd’s life in rural Austria-Hungary. When World War One comes, Jozef joins his adopted brother as a sharpshooter in the Kaiser’s army, surviving a perilous trek across the frozen Italian Alps and capture by a victorious enemy.
A stirring tale of brotherhood, coming-of-age, and survival, that was inspired by the author’s own family history, this novel evokes a time when Czechs, Slovaks, Austrians, and Germans fought on the same side while divided by language, ethnicity, and social class in the most brutal war to date. It is also a poignant tale of fathers and sons, addressing the great immigration to America and the desire to live the American dream amidst the unfolding tragedy in Europe. "
In the opening pages a desperate mother throws her infant son into a river. The son is saved and mom dies. The boy's immigrant father moves them from Colorado at the end of the 19th Century to his country of origin, Slovakia, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The boy and his father take up sheep herding when they speak and read English. They are joined by another young boy, who becomes Jozef's brother, in name if not in fact. Jozef becomes disillusioned by something his father does and the two boys join the Kaiser's army where they become snipers. This is followed by death, capture by a victorious enemy and a long coming home.
Michael Dirda said in the Washington Post:
Although “The Sojourn” is rightly marketed as a literary novel, it should also appeal to fans of Stephen Hunter’s sniper novels and David Morrell’s early thrillers, and I really shouldn’t say any more about its plot, certainly not about the sudden deaths on the snowy mountain pass or the raped Gypsy girl or the bags of gold hidden in a cave. Yet throughout, Krivak returns, again and again, to the love between a father and his son, to the burden of tragic memories, and to the fraught nature of national or ethnic identity. As Jozef says at one point: “What was a Czecho-Slovak to me, though, a boy raised among Carpathian peasants in a Magyar culture, professing loyalty in a poor school to a Hapsburg, and speaking a language in secret they spoke in a land called America?”
"Packed with violence and death, yet wonderfully serene in its tone, Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn — shortlisted for this year’s  National Book Award — reminds us that one never knows from where the blow will fall and that, always, in the midst of life we are in death: “His foot slipped from the poor hold he had chosen on the next step and he pitched forward and began to slide and spin sideways down the hill, letting go of the rifle, which picked up its own speed and outstripped him as it dropped straight and slammed into a rock not twenty yards from my father and went off, shooting the man through the heart. He was dead before he came to rest."
I thought The Sojourn was a very satisfying book that begs me to read it again. Soon.
Heretics, Leonardo Padura, 2013 (translation, 2017)
The Good Ship S.S. St Louis and its 900 Jews who are trying to escape Nazi Germany comes to Havana in the hope that Cuba will accept these refugees. We know they won't. Nobody did. They perished back in Europe. But in this story mom and dad and one daughter of the Kaminsky family are on the boat, and the 9-yr-old son Daniel is in Cuba with an uncle, having arrived some time earlier. There is a Rembrandt painting in the family and it is supposed to buy entry into Cuba for the ship-bound Kaminskys. It doesn't. The painting disappears along with the family. The painting resurfaces 70 year later in a London auction house. This leads Daniel to return to Cuba and engage former detective and somewhat down-on-his-luck Mario Conde to try to find out what happened to the painting.
The story really begins in 17th Century Amsterdam where the Jews who were driven out of the Iberian peninsula in the 15th and 16th Centuries have been welcomed and have established a thriving community. The problem is that painting the human figure is not permitted by Jewish law. Despite that Elias is accepted to learn from the great Rembrandt and eventually is given a signed portrait of Christ, for which Elias was the model. The tensions within Amsterdam's Jewish community, something I knew nothing about, are the major theme of the second novel. Elias is ultimately excluded from the Jewish community and he migrates to Poland. On his death bed he gives the painting to a Dr. Kaminsky. Thus the Rembrandt painting enters the Kaminsky family.
The book ends in modern day Havana with a Kaminsky girl disappears after becoming and emo (me either), a group of totally despairing youth who paint their faces, wear dark clothes and, oh yes, they hurt themselves. There are lesbians and sleazy Italian druggies too. Mario Conde tries to find the missing Judith.
This is a long book over 500 pages. It tends to be discursive, but there is the missing painting, murder, exile and a description of pre Revolutionary Havana -- and Mario Conde drinks a lot of rum with friends and, then, there is the woman -- Tamara -- he might propose marriage to.
Heretics, the title? From the NPR book review:
"And in all of this, the uniting strand is the idea of heresy — of rules broken that can never be unbroken, of modernity grinding away at tradition. The Jewish art student who posed for Rembrandt's Christ painting, the Kaminsky family displaying it in a fit of atheistic pride, the kids in Cuba, the "most remarkable tip of the iceberg of a generation of certified heretics." This is what Padura spends 500 pages talking about: Heresy as a forgetting of the past."
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders, 2017
Bardo? bardo. " (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person's conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death. " (English Oxford Dictionary)
This is the description from Goodreads:
On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln [Abraham Lincoln's son who died probably from typhoid] was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.
Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel - in its form and voice - completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.
This is what one reviewer wrote:
"George Saunders has written a magnificent, unique, experimental work that is both heartbreaking and humourous, both heavenly and in the mire. This novel examines death and existence thereafter, while exalting the beauty of life, each precious moment of it. It reveals the unbearable grief felt at the loss of a child. It shows, in a chorus of voices, the many hues memory paints of an event. All the while, it magnifies the undeniable dignity of Abraham Lincoln.
The range of this book is astonishing. The format is original - part historical accounting, part Shakespearean play. The concept is this: Willie Lincoln, at 11 years old, dies, breaking his presidential father's heart. He finds himself (amongst a host of other spirits) in the "Bardo" (essentially purgatory), where he is visited by his father, and where he decides he will stay in order to see him again. The rest of the story is ghostly, Godly, mystical, mysterious, and oh-so-human. I loved it."
This is from Thomas Mallon's New Yorker review:
"Saunders’s witty and garrulous graveyard is filled with semi-spirits in a state of denial. They believe that their dead bodies are merely a “sick-form,” and that the coffins and crypts containing them are “sick-boxes,” as if Oak Hill were a hospital instead of a cemetery. They have chosen to resist passage to a genuine afterlife, and with their defiance has come boredom: “Each night passed with a devastating sameness,” Hans Vollman, one of those who have adamantly “soldiered on,” says. A printer with an enormous penis, he was, back in the eighteen-forties, just beginning to experience the joy of bedding his much younger wife when a ceiling beam fell and killed him. Vollman’s best posthumous pal is the campy, once closeted Roger Bevins III, now sporting multiple limbs like a Hindu god. The two are frequently in the company of a straitlaced “old bore,” the Reverend Everly Thomas, the closest thing to a Stage Manager in Saunders’s netherworld. Unlike Vollman and Bevins, he knows he is dead, as well as damned."
George Saunders has previously published several collections of short fiction. This is his first novel. Most reviews are very good. There are many characters in this book and becauses of that several reviewers said that the book was better when heard in the audio version, and then it was otherworldly (or words to that effect). l