by Ron Chernow
Recommended Ages: 13+
I wouldn't have read this book if the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod had not sold its classical radio station, KFUO-FM, to a Christian Contemporary Music network. I would have happily spent my two-hour daily round-trip commute listening to pieces of Brahms and Haydn, highbrow patter about the local arts community, and advertisements for home-decor boutiques and elder-care facilities. Instead, I found myself banished to the fiery limbo of talk radio. I tried listening to CDs from my own classical music library, but even the best of them grow tedious after you've heard them ten times in a row; I needed a briefcase full of them just to get through one week. Even operas, the super-size-meal-deal of the music world, were only good for one or two round trips. So I finally broke down and invested in some audio books. Weighing in at anywhere from six to ten CDs, these books-on-disk enabled me to beguile my windshield time for as much as a week per book.
Equally important, however, was the choice of audio book. I didn't want to listen to somebody reading current bestsellers, which may be more or less entertaining today but will probably be forgotten by next week. I wanted something that would truly exercise my mind and give me lasting pleasure. So I started my search at a used record store, where I bought the audio-book version of two works by Ernest Hemingway... and this.
At last, I get around to discussing the book itself. Whether you read it in hard copy or hear the somewhat abridged audio book narrated by Grover Gardner, I think you will find this biography of one of our nation's founding fathers an absorbing and worthwhile exercise of your gray cells. Ron Chernow, also a celebrated biographer of George Washington, does not sugar-coat the flaws and errors of the man who, more than any other individual, was responsible for translating the dead letter of the U.S. Constitution into a living, functioning federal government. With a transparent blend of dramatic vividness and scrupulously documented historical accuracy, Chernow presents the man in all his foibles and infidelities, his strengths and weaknesses, his tragedies and triumphs, his loves and hates, his eccentricities and his essential principles.
I was unaware, until I read this book, that Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in the West Indies, that he did not attend school until he was well into his teens, or that he became a leading figure in the American Revolution--and even a war hero--while still in his twenties. Having heard about him mainly from the other side--the Jeffersonian point of view--I was surprised to find myself sympathizing with Hamilton's federalist principles, his intellectually gifted rhetoric, and his sometimes reckless honesty in all his political and business dealings. His closeness to Washington, which some historians have cast in a sinister light as of a shrewd toadie operating on a mentally feeble old warhorse, comes across in this book rather as a touching partnership between vastly different men who held each other in the deepest respect. Subsequent presidents Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe come across as surprisingly flawed and, in at least one case, cynically two-faced.
Even Hamilton's fatal nemesis Aaron Burr comes in for a fascinating and detailed portrait. I particularly relished the scene, near the end of the book, where then-ex-President Monroe pays a call to Hamilton's widow, only to get stiff-armed by a lady who had never forgotten Monroe's role in her husband's downfall. Brought up in trying circumstances, driven by powerful ambition, hamstrung by his own pride and honor, and finally slain in a duel that eerily resembled one that had killed his eldest son a couple years earlier, Hamilton appears both in his touching humanity and in his amazing significance to the establishment of our republic. That such a person could really exist bears witness to the adage that "truth is stranger than fiction." That his true story is as readable (or listenable) as a fine piece of fiction is a credit to Mr. Chernow.
Death in the Afternoon
by Ernest Hemingway
Recommended Ages: 14+
Here is Hemingway's love letter to the art of killing bulls, a unique outgrowth of the cultural religion of Spain. Written when its author was in his early thirties, it paints a vivid, colorful prose picture of an art that was either beginning to die when he witnessed it, or had already essentially died, or always is and has been dying but never quite dead. It is an exploration of what is essentially true at the heart of a decadent institution: the acting-out of the timeless tragedy of death that seems, at times, to have degenerated without chance of recall into a gaudy spectacle of self-destructive machismo, or sometimes very thinly veiled cowardice.
Hemingway presents the chief parts of the bullfight one at a time, in the manner of a lecturer delivering a master class on the subject. With a keenly critical eye he evaluates the strengths and weakness of the matadors of his time, and of the people who serve them (such as picadors and banderilleros). To keep it from becoming boring, however, he places it all against a richly colored backdrop. Spain, as it was on the eve of its Civil War, comes alive to all the senses.
Hemingway also offers strange and wonderful insights into the Spanish character, as well as the human, and his own--simply by making such a compelling case for seeing the beauty in a ritual that too many have thoughtlessly condemned as wanton, cruel and wasteful of life. He argues persuasively that the corrida's shift of priorities, from when the killing of the bull was all-important to the latter-day matador's exhibition of calmness and poise while allowing the horns to pass suicidally close to his body, is both a blessing and a curse but mostly the latter. Under Hemingway's influence, one may even come to suspect that some of the reforms meant to lessen the supposed cruelty of the fights actually, in effect, increased the suffering experienced by the animal and the danger faced by the men.
The author does not confine his discussion to the ring. He sketches the lifestyle of bullfighters outside the ring, the pressures and health-hazards (both physical and mental) that they face, and the wider experience of living and traveling in Spain. He observes the behavior of the spectators, the character of the all-too-mortal men engaged in this blood sport, the challenges of the climate, and even the problems inherent in writing about Spain. At a couple of points he goes entirely off-topic and volunteers a bitingly memorable, brief essay on some other subject, such as using a beloved old horse as bear-bait, seeing death in a variety of forms in World War I (what he calls a "history of the dead"), and even some of his experiences from living in Paris.
It is interesting to consider whether the cynicism of Hemingway's worldview can be separated from these experiences, or from his appreciation of the bullfight. It is fascinating to have such a vital character speaking directly to you, even if you (like me) cannot help but disobey his command to "read no further until after you have seen the bullfight." Hemingway must have envisioned quite a small audience for this book if he really expected that injunction to be obeyed. But one aspect of his vitality is the swiftness of his judgment of other men's manliness. The life he himself lived would be a hard yardstick to measure up to. Yet in this book we see--or, as in my case, hear it as narrated on CD by the verbally gifted Boyd Gaines--this standard of judgment brought to bear on such men that Hemingway seems to come away in awe of them. And if that isn't a reason to take an interest in the bullfight, I don't know what is.
True at First Light
by Ernest Hemingway
Recommended Ages: 14+
In 1999, Ernest Hemingway's centennial year, this previously unpublished work went public. It had been edited by the author's son Patrick Hemingway from an unfinished manuscript twice as long as the final book. If you want to see what Patrick left out of his father's semi-autobiographical novel, or semi-fictional memoir, you can read that too: see Under Kilamanjaro, edited by scholars from the Hemingway Society. My advice, however, would be to accept the book in the form Patrick Hemingway gave it, because in my opinion it is just about perfect. True at First Light lovingly conjures the beauty of one of Africa's most spectacular wild places, populates it with characters who partake of a fascinating way of life, and places in their midst a sympathetically flawed narrator whose gentlemanly wisdom Hemingway seems to have wished, or even half-believed, was his own.
The book is loosely based on a two-month period in 1953-54 when Ernest Hemingway served as acting game warden on the north slope of Mount Kilamanjaro, in the African nation of Kenya. He and his fourth wife Mary had been guests of the regular game warden, and were happy to fill in while the latter tended to his farm. The African idyll ended when the Hemingways survived two plane crashes on the same day, resulting in exaggerated rumors of their demise. The author was more seriously injured than anyone realized at the time, and partly as a result of these injuries he gradually lost the ability to concentrate on his work. And so this book remained unfinished at the time of Hemingway's suicide in 1961.
The book does not cover the plane crash or its aftermath, though there are ominous foreshadowings of it for him who has eyes to read between the lines. Instead, it focuses on a few weeks during the author's term as interim game warden, on Mary's obsessive stalking of a rogue lion, on the author's (completely fabricated) affair with a native woman, on his invention of a new religion, and on the complex interrelationship between the Hemingways, their camp servants, and the locals. It was a melancholy time when the future of a beautiful wild country, its game, and its unique tribal cultures was in jeopardy from colonial "white" influences, the spread of Islam, and the policies of corrupt native officials. It was a perilous time when the Mau-Mau rebellion swept Kenya--a fanatical movement which, had it been joined by the Kamba tribe befriended by the Hemingways, would certainly have caused their deaths.
I enjoyed this book in its audio format, narrated by actor Brian Dennehy, during a week's worth of two-hour daily commutes. Dennehy's voice is not only easy on the ears but also very well suited to the character Hemingway crafts about himself. It is also the voice of a surprisingly cultured and linguistically gifted reader, who carries off a script liberally mined with Kiswahili vocables, to say nothing of entire sentences in French. Where Boyd Gaines (in reading Death in the Afternoon) sometimes forgot himself and went on in a Spanish accent for whole paragraphs of Hemingway-as-Hemingway, Dennehy never broke character until I almost believed I was listening to Hemingway's own voice. The CD also includes a track of Patrick Hemingway reading his own foreword to the book, which leads to such reflections as, "If his Dad sounded like that, he owes Brian Dennehy big-time."
My only complaint is that the crucial CD, in which Mary's lion hunt comes to its climax, was scratched and full of skips. I guess I'll have to read the hard copy next time. I'm almost certain there will be a next time, because in spite of its debatably dubious pedigree and lukewarm critical reception, I found this book to be classic Hemingway: steeped in the enchantment of an exotic world and of a rare, dangerous, and dying way of life, it preserves that moment, and that place, with a clarity so amazing that it makes art seem easy, genius a day's work, and a tedious stretch of highway a place of wonderful significance.
I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President
by Josh Lieb
Recommended Ages: 11+
Oliver Watson seems like a totally average junior high student in Omaha, Nebraska. Well, that's a lie. Actually he seems below average--fat, weak, nervous, and stupid. But it's all an act. Well, mostly. The fat part isn't an act. But the rest of it is an ingenious cover for the fact that Ollie is secretly a rich, criminal overlord well on his way toward world domination.
Local millionaire Lionel Sheldrake is actually a front-man for Oliver, who meets his minions in a blimp flying over Omaha, or in a secret underground laboratory, or even in a hidden room behind a row of decommissioned lockers in his school. Oliver's minions have planted fiendishly clever devices that, for example, cause the drinking fountain to run chocolate milk at the press of a button camouflaged as a wad of chewing gum. Ollie's minions listen to his orders, whispered into a hidden microphone, to punish kids who are mean to him by injecting them with a drug that causes noxious flatulence, or by having their favorite TV show canceled. Ollie's minions play bizarre pranks on his least favorite teachers, such as planting unnervingly personal messages inside the peel of an orange or on the side of a cigarette. Surrounded by all-but-invisible bodyguards, able to topple the leader of a small nation at a whim, and unhampered by inconvenient emotions such as tenderness or friendship toward anyone, Oliver Watson is vulnerable to nothing, nobody's fool... except.
Except that he has Daddy issues.
In spite of the fact that he remembers the day he was born, and was more intelligent than his father even then--though he has always had to hide it, to avoid frightening his parents--Ollie wants for nothing except, just once, to make his father proud of him. It is such a burning passion, such a deeply frustrated desire, that he almost doesn't admit it to himself. But in spite of all that he has accomplished without his father knowing it, Oliver yearns to do just one thing that will measure up to to the boyhood achievements of his quick-to-find-fault Dad. Which is why he stakes so much of his astronomical wealth and secret power on running for president... of the student council.
This is a fiendishly funny, first-person story from the point of view of a self-described "evil genius" who gradually finds out that he can't fight the emotional needs that he has in common with all other children, as much as he despises them. It is a horror story about how far a person with unlimited resources might go to settle a score of the most personal kind. It is a quirkily touching story about a boy who goes to anti-heroic lengths to prove that he can do it all without friends or loved ones, only to learn that he can't. Nor, surprisingly, does he need to. It is a story of school mayhem that scribbles a silly mustache on teachers, school administrators, Federal agents, third-world dictators, and quite a few kids you know. It could speak powerfully to frustrated overachievers, as well as underachievers who aren't frustrated enough... and it is also a very, very entertaining first book by a TV writer and producer for such shows at "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Simpsons."
by Robin McKinley
Recommended Ages: 15+
I take a book with me everywhere I go. The habit has grown out of my realization that I hate boredom more than anything else. So one night when I had a ticket to the Symphony, I brought this book along and read from it during the "down-time" before the concert, and during the intermission. Another adaptation I have made is to become used to passersby taking an interest in whatever it might be that I'm so interested in. About 18 people asked me about this book that night. I was happy to tell them about Robin McKinley, who has written so many good books. But what really intrigued most folks is the fact that Sunshine is a vampire novel. It doesn't look at all like what you would expect in a vampire novel. Unless I'm a poor judge of people, at least a few of those 18 inquirers went out and bought Sunshine the next day. Why? Because anyone can tell, right from the front cover, that as vampire novels go, this one is different.
And having read all the way through to the back cover, I can honestly confirm that it is every bit as different as you may have guessed. Perhaps more so. And that's really saying something. I've been a big fan of vampire literature since I read Dracula as a young teen, and then went on a video-bender watching every Dracula-based movie I could find. And reading many a vampire-related book. Some of them were super-scary. Some of them were a erotic. Some were action-fantasy blockbusters. Others were funny, or suspenseful, or mysterious. Some were rather lame. Lately, with the massive success of such Harlequin-romance vampire sagas as True Blood and Twilight, the market has been flooded with so many vampire yarns that I've been forced to give up following them all. Now the only thing that can brighten the hopeless vista is a truly different vampire novel. Leave it to Robin McKinley, that past mistress of the mythopoeic, to write it!
The world McKinley creates in this book is similar to present-day America, except that it is aswarm with workers of magic and magical beings of every type, from the brightest faeries to the darkest demons. It is a world that has already been torn apart by magical wars, rendering vast tracts of real estate uninhabitable due to spell pollution. It is a world in which the most important Federal law-enforcement agency is SOF--Special Other Forces--policing the activities and status of dark creatures and of the millions of people who share a mixed demon/human heritage. It is a world where the undead are a law unto themselves, spreading like a cancer that, some say, will take everything over in 100 years.
In that world, it is unwise for a coffeehouse master baker named Rae Seddon--"Sunshine" to her friends--to take a nighttime drive, alone, out to the lake that society abandoned after the worst part of the wars. Sunshine shouldn't live to regret it, after being captured by vampires and chained to a wall inside a derelict mansion next to another vampire, who is being starved and tortured into insanity by exposure to each day's sun. Even though the vampire doesn't want to eat her, they both know it's only a matter of time until his self-possession breaks. Except that Sunshine does something extraordinarily unexpected. She discovers an untapped power within her, a power drawn from sunlight and from the magic-user heritage on her long-absent father's side. She discovers a way to save both herself and, even in broad daylight, her undead prisonmate.
As the strange events continue to unfold, Sunshine develops a bond with the vampire Constantine, experiences new senses, discovers unlooked-for powers, and gets caught up in a vendetta against a power so revoltingly evil that it will make even the most jaded horror-junkie shudder. Even after the gruesome climax, the book's deliberate ending allows you to savor the really juicy question: Can Sunshine come through all this and remain herself?
Like many books of the "mythopoesis" persuasion--a specialty of both McKinley and her husband Peter Dickinson--this one poses some degree of challenge to the reader, a challenge to discover by induction all that is unique about the world it conjures, and to master its distinctive style of speech. It is also a book that earns an "adult content advisory," owing not only to violence and gore but also to some strong sexual imagery. Vigilant parents should consider their teen's level of maturity before deciding whether this book is appropriate for him or her. But it is also a chatty novel that, I think, could easily take even younger teen readers into its confidence and draw them into its world, with its sensory delights and compelling pace, so that they hardly realize how challenging it us until they find themselves surrounded by vampires. As one character tells Sunshine: "I think you are in over your head in exactly what you are best suited to be in over your head in...and you are doing very well."
Ramage and the Guillotine
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+
In this sixth book in "The Lord Ramage Novels," young Royal Navy Lieutenant Nicholas Ramage accepts a seemingly impossible assignment, personally handed to him by the First Lord of the Admiralty. His mission: to cross the Channel into France, find out the state of readiness of Napoleon's invasion fleet--which is expected, any day or perhaps never, to attack the English coast--and report back. And although he is a naval hero, he must do all this without a ship of his own. How he gets over to France is his own business; the crucial part of the job must take place on land.
Part of Ramage's adventure does double duty, both as a display of the young lieutenant's savvy in finding a way to do the next-to-impossible, and as a historical study of the smuggling trade in the early 1800s. Ferried across the Channel by the unusually cooperative crew of a brandy-smuggling smack, Ramage and a handful of faithful seamen sniff around the harbor of Boulogne. Then, putting his neck at inconceivably high risk of being stretched across the Guillotine, he follows the scent of even better intelligence inland to Amiens. In a paranoid police state where no one can travel without papers, even from one city to another, and where everyone lives in constant fear of denunciation to the powers that be, Ramage risks all on his ability to impersonate an Italian ship-builder, accompanied by a Cockney picklock who doesn't speak a word of French (let alone Italian) and a French smuggler brazenly impersonating a member of the Committee for Public Safety.
To say that such a mission is "suicide" may lack force in this day and age, where we are accustomed to seeing heroes accomplish the impossible. So in fairness to Ramage's deathwish, I must mention to you that he spends part of this book--near the end, actually--awaiting execution by guillotine. This brings a relentlessly suspenseful book to a climactic pitch of tension, while also being moving and--believe it or not--bitterly funny...
OFFICIAL: Your execution is arranged for ten o'clock tomorrow morning.I continue to enjoy the exploits of the all but tiresomely admirable Ramage. This is one of his most admirable exploits so far. And it is also a fascinating glimpse into the atmosphere in France at the time of Napoleon's wars of conquest. I had never really appreciated, until I read this book, the irony that post-revolutionary France was really a miserable, oppressive, horrific place to live. By comparison, the very British Empire against which my country had so recently revolted was, for all its flaws, the best and freest nation in the world, except perhaps America.
RAMAGE: Thank you. It is a civilized hour. I was afraid you would make it dawn.
By reading this book at home at the same time that I listened to Alexander Hamilton in my car, I found it easy to agree with some of our founding fathers (such as Hamilton) who sympathized with Britain, and to lose respect for others (such as Jefferson) who worshiped the French Revolution. Imagine that! It could be a novel of naval derring-do that convinces you that "liberty, equality, fraternity," without the rule of law, is by far the worse tyranny than even Mad King George and his cynical, tax-and-spend Parliament. Maybe all I needed to say was that this is a book that educates as it entertains. But it entertains so well that you don't mind a bit of educating coming in under the stile!
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+
In the seventh book of his naval adventures, Lord Nicholas Ramage attains to the rank of post-captain. This is to say, "Captain" is finally his official rank, and not just the courtesy title afforded to any Royal Navy Lieutenant who happens to command a ship. Now he can aspire to command any size of warship, up to the massive "ships of the line" that supply much of Britain's firepower against the combined navies of Spain, the Netherlands, and Napoleonic France. Meanwhile, however, he has been given command of a 32-gun frigate, Juno by name, and dispatched to the West Indies with orders for Admiral Davis, orders direct from the First Lord of the Admiralty.
Ramage knows only that the Admiral's orders have to do with some special, urgent mission. If he hopes that Davis will send him on that mission, his hopes are in vain. Instead, the Admiral sends one of his favorite frigate-captains on the mission, and puts Ramage on blockade duty along the coast of the French island of Martinique. Nevertheless, our young hero very quickly turns his tedious assignment to good account, first by capturing a couple of privateers that tried to capture Juno, then by accomplishing the almost unbelievable feat of setting up a battery on the 500-foot-high haunt of goats known as Diamond Rock. The only thing more unbelievable than this fictional achievement is the fact that it actually pales next to the historical fact it is based on!
Then it's just a matter of waiting until the expected French convoy rounds the southern point of Martinique. But in spite of his late amazing run of luck, Ramage has good reason to worry. His expected reinforcements haven't arrived, and time is running out. Under-gunned, under-manned, he may find himself facing suicidal odds and vastly superior forces, with nothing in his favor but the element of surprise.
The suspense is good, and it is also wonderful to see Ramage moving into the next phase of his career--building relationships with his own lieutenants, commanding larger forces, holding more responsibility, and running more complex tactics. The one weakness of this book, particularly alongside others in this series, is the almost anticlimactic ease with which Ramage's great crisis resolves itself. Heck, strike the word "almost"--the lopsided battle against the much larger French forces tilts so dizzyingly in the other direction that it smacks of deus ex machina, only with a makeshift land-battery instead of deus and a freak collision instead of machina. One could reasonably regret not seeing Ramage claw victory out of the enemy's grasp by sheer boldness and tactical brilliance... instead, he so seems to owe his victory to luck that even Ramage himself feels cheated, to say nothing of the reader.
On the other hand, I suppose such things happened in real life, and if they hadn't there might not be an eighth Lord Ramage Novel to look forward to. And it does seem that his gamble on that land-battery idea of his paid off in a big way. But now that he has succeeded so successfully that Admiral Davis is willing to give him that special mission, Ramage must swallow the bitter pill of what that mission involves. I'm not telling, though. You'll have to stand by for Book 8, Ramage's Mutiny....
The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse
by Robert Rankin
Recommended Ages: 15+
19 years ago, while crossing the Atlantic in the center section of a DC-10, I found myself seated next to an adorable little German boy who spent the entire flight puking. The poor Schatze used up every airsick bag in the entire row; I can't imagine where it all came from. To keep my mind off this unsettling spectacle, I fell back on the only available diversion besides an edited-for-airlines presentation of the cinematic masterpiece Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot! Which, natch, meant reading a book. All I had was a novel hurriedly grabbed at a multilingual airport gift shop in Frankfurt. Its title, dear reader, was Armageddon II: The B-Movie. It was supposed to be the sequel to a book called Armageddon: The Musical.
If you think you can imagine how awful that book was, you are probably mistaken. Even though its awfulness was predictable, given its title; even though it evidently was awful by design; even though, like all your favorite awful books, its awfulness was mitigated by a few gratuitously explicit passages of an adult nature: it was, at last, too awful to compete with the comedic duo of Sylvester Stallone and Estelle Getty. So I surrendered to the real B-movie and let the make-believe one drift to the bottom of my Fort Made of Books until I had forgotten all about it except its title and a vague impression of its failure to compete with a nauseous neighbor for entertainment value.
I didn't connect the name of author Robert Rankin with that memory until after I had bought this book and started reading it. The title (pictured above) jumped out at me as I passed it in the stacks, and after scanning the back-cover blurb I thought it might be a fun diversion. When I realized what a weird kind of fun it was, I checked inside the front cover for a list of the author's works and was shocked to make the connection to that nightmarish flight from Frankfurt to Boston in June of 1992. Yes, Robert Rankin wrote that too.
Nevertheless, I pressed on. It didn't entirely redeem my first impression of its author, as (for example) The Scarecrow and His Servant rehabilitated my opinion of Philip Pullman after the offensively disappointing His Dark Materials trilogy. While I can still sense a kinship between this book's irreverently quirky sense of humor and the book I found unreadable 20 years ago, I actually had a good time reading this one. Many readers may find it puzzlingly tacky, psychotically weird, and weighted down by an exaggerated estimate of its own cleverness. Vigilant parents who wonder whether this book, like Armageddon II, deserves an "adult content advisory," might be concerned to hear the answer, "Ha, ha, yes, very much so." And after all that is said, I imagine there is a small market for a hard-boiled detective novel featuring a boy named Jack and his bestest friend, a stuffed bear named Eddie, in a city where nursery-rhyme characters and toys live, move, and have their being.
This is a naughty murder mystery in which an underage boy drinks, drives, and loses his virginity, together with a toy bear who likes to stand on his head while drunk so that the alcohol trickles into his sawdust brains. It is an often gruesome and oftener gross story in which denizens of a fairy-tale universe grapple with deep questions about God and the end of the world. It is a cosmically (and comically) bizarre romp amid cannibal farmers, clockwork cars, talking door-knockers, killer spider-women, and an evil twin who leaves hollow chocolate bunnies at the scenes of his crimes. It has some of the same twisted appeal as Jasper Fforde's "Nursery Crime" series, yet it remains the work of a unique stylist with a satirical outlook all his own. If this had been the first book by Robert Rankin I laid hands on, I might not have waited 20 years to try a second...