Author Archives: robgieszl

Carousel Books – Part I

In my reading life, there is a selection of choice books that I refer to as my carousel reads.  These are books that I read time and again, with the common thread among them being the wisdom, inspiration, and uplift I believe they have brought to my life.

The other day, and for reasons still unknown to me, my copy of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, which I inherited from my paternal grandmother, called to me from among the scores of other books surrounding it in the bookcase where it rested, saying, “It is time.”  Since I am one who is rarely contrary to talking books, I removed it from its repose and began to read.

But first, a few words about Mr. Gibran. Born in 1883 in Lebanon, Mr. Gibran demonstrated early in his life an innate talent with the arts, which was of such magnitude that he lived the vast majority of his life as an expatriate successfully working as both an artist and writer, the products of which brought him worldwide celebrity.  In fact, an article from the January 7, 2008 issue of The New Yorker said of Mr. Gibran:

“Shakespeare, we are told, is the best-selling poet of all time. Second is Lao-tzu. Third is Kahlil Gibran…” 

Wow.  I would say this statement provides a definite perspective.

As to The Prophet, first published in 1923, it is a brilliant meditation upon life and the conditions in which we humans find ourselves, conditions  not rooted in a particular religious philosophy or nationality; in other words, it is universal.  Ruminating on such subjects as love, work, friendship, and beauty, the reader is provided a lens through which life is examined with a unique perspective, and it is this perspective that I find refreshing and is the reason for my return to its pages.

During this most recent reading, one passage immediately drew my attention:

“Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.  Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; For love is sufficient unto love.”

And further, as example:

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”

With countless other profound phrases and erudition, I imagine that The Prophet would make for a strong candidate for the select lists of carousel books of others; thus, joining in a perpetual celebration of the human condition that this lovely book provides.

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

Formats Available:

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Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story by Timothy Tyson

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

On May 11, 1970 in the North Carolina town of Oxford, an African American man named Henry Dortress Marrow, Jr. was viciously beaten and murdered in public by three white men who would all three be acquitted by an all-white jury of this horrendous, cold-blooded crime. In response to this travesty of justice, there were demonstrations, riots, and a months-long boycott by African Americans in the community of white-owned businesses that eventually forced the leaders of Oxford to end segregation practices there. That’s right, end segregation practices in 1970, despite the passage by the Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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This is very difficult book to read, and I am not referring to the writing or narrative style. The violence and injustice that is recorded within its pages is repugnant and infuriating, but this is an important story to hear. I feel certain that there may be some who would say: Why write this book and drudge up hard feelings? Nothing good can come from it. To these people I would reply that in order for a country and its society to move forward as a unified people, it is essential to study the past, most especially those events that continue to divide, so that chasms may close and wounds healed.

Mr. Tyson, the son of a white Methodist minister who was a strong and public advocate for the Civil Rights Movement, was ten years old and living in Oxford at the time of Mr. Marrow’s murder, and it is this crime and its fallout that shaped the person that Mr. Tyson developed into as an adult. The reader joins Mr. Tyson in reflecting very deeply upon the Civil Rights Movement and the history of race relations in the United States, which leads to a litany of questions. How does one define freedom? How is change most effectively encouraged by a movement? What is the current state of race relations in America today?

It is absolutely vital that these and additional questions be examined by all, as the future of our country really does depend upon everyone facing our past in order to understand the present so that we may make progress together as a single people. And Blood Done Sign My Name serves as an emotional and powerful impetus for just such a purpose.

“Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in this world, but it has not solved one yet.”
Maya Angelou
Conversations with Maya Angelou, 1989

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type), Audiobook (CD), Downloadable Audiobook

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

The Role of Religion in these United States: Jon Meacham’s American Gospel

The proper role of religion in the United States of America has been a source of debate since the beginning of the country, a debate that continues to this very day. Political parties, social institutions, and individuals all put forth their varied opinions as to the appropriate level of influence religion should have in the public and government sectors.

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In American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, Mr. Meacham provides a well-balanced, well-researched investigation of this question focusing on the writings of the Founding Fathers, which form the foundation and framework upon which the United States government operates today, as well as an examination of the state of the country at the time of its founding and how the conditions of that time affected the authoring of the governing documents and the thinking of those who wrote them. On page 232 Mr. Meacham wrote:

“A grasp of history is essential for Americans of the center who struggle to decide how much weight to assign a religious consideration in a public matter. To fail to consult the past consigns us to what might be called the tyranny of the present – the mistaken idea that the crises of our own time are unprecedented and that we have to solve them without experience to guide us.”

The tyranny of the present. In other words, there is nothing new under the sun, and Mr. Meacham certainly has a large body of work by some of the most progressive and brilliant thinkers in history to consult on this matter. And he does not simply repeat oft-heard quotes or ideas (i.e., “a wall of separation between Church & State” taken from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802); rather, he provides the context from which these quotes were taken, which allows for a greater understanding of the intent of the author.

While this subject matter is rather complex, Mr. Meacham displays a true talent in relating it in a manner that is easy to understand, and this, I believe, is what makes American Gospel so remarkable. Furthermore, considering the import of this topic to the nation, it would seem advisable for all to become more familiar with it so that one can be in a better position to make informed decisions as an individual citizen. After all, an informed electorate is essential to the success of a republic such as ours.

“This last is the most certain and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” – Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Uriah Forrest, December 31, 1787

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type and Large Type), Audiobook (CD)

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

Where Fiction May Lead

parchementoleavesI recently had the opportunity to facilitate a group discussion of A Parchment of Leaves by the great Kentucky author, Silas House. While I enjoyed the book tremendously, there was another aspect of this novel that I came across during my research in preparation for the book discussion that I found equally wonderful: the poetry of Kentuckian James Still.

You see, it is a poem by Mr. Still from which Mr. House derives the title of this book. The poem, entitled I Was Born Humble, is a truly awe-inspiring contemplation, in my mind, of life in general, life not necessarily rooted in the place of Kentucky.

The following is the full text:

I was born humble. At the foot of mountains
My face was set upon the immensity of earth
And stone; and upon oaks full-bodied and old.
There is so much writ upon the parchment of leaves,
So much of beauty blown upon the winds,
I can but fold my hands and sink my knees
In the leaf-pages. Under the mute trees
I have cried with this scattering of knowledge,
Beneath the flight of birds shaken with this waste
Of wings.
I was born humble. My heart grieves
Beneath this wealth of wisdom perished with the leaves.

My reaction is the same each and every time I read or recite these lines: an overwhelming sense of both joy and sorrow. But isn’t life, after all, both joy and sorrow?

It is here that I must admit that I oftentimes find poetry somewhat inaccessible. While I admire and am familiar with the household names in this genre, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost, it is when I branch out to lesser-known poets that I find myself a bit befuddled.

This, I hope and believe, will no longer be the case, as I find a renewed interest in such structured musings and now possess the resolve to venture further. Hitherto, I have always turned to fiction to better understand history, tragedy and triumph, the human condition, etc., but it seems to me now that there is an additional literary vehicle available to me by which I can come to a better understanding of the world. They say that a thing is better late than never, an expression that I take solace in on this new, and somewhat belated, journey into the realm of that most objective of aesthetic art – poetry.

Two collections of Mr. Still’s poems that I would recommend, in addition to A Parchment of Leaves by Silas House, are:

Formats Available:  Book (Regular and Large Type), Audiobook, eBook

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

There are numerous means by which history can be recorded: oral history, paintings, poems, monuments, and, of course, the written word. While they all have their particular advantages and strengths, I find the written word most powerful, especially when put forth in the form of fiction. Experiencing history through the narrative of fictional characters personalizes history and brings it to the level of the individual. In reducing history to mere facts and figures, much is lost, and the novel is capable of preventing such a reduction.

pianoteacherThe Piano Teacher, written by Janice Y. K. Lee, is just such a novel. Set in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong and alternating between the years 1941/1942 and 1951/1952, the reader is provided prose of the highest caliber with which Ms. Lee effectively recreates pre- and post-WWII Hong Kong, a city teeming with drama of every sort and serving as a nexus between East and West. It is within this setting that the story’s complex characters navigate romances, intrigues, and the general trials and tribulations of life. Of course, romance can manifest itself in many ways, and in demonstration of this point, take, for example, the following dialogue from the novel and between two lovers:

A few weeks later, she asked, “Why me?”
“Why anyone?” he answered. “Why is anyone with anyone?”
Desire, proximity, habit, chance. All these went through her mind, but she didn’t say a word.
“I don’t like to love,” he said. “You should be forewarned. I don’t believe in it. And you shouldn’t either.”

Wow. Now that is pure romance, no?

Of course, once Hong Kong is conquered by the Imperial Japanese Army in December of 1941, romance of any sort takes on quite different trappings. The forty-four month occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese was quite horrendous, and the reader is not spared the gory details. With such trying and overwhelmingly bleak conditions and with death constantly at hand, the true natures of the characters emerge.

Ms. Lee, by means of her skilled writing, transports the reader to Hong Kong of the 1940s and 1950s introducing a cast of characters who face many difficult challenges and choices, which by itself is very engaging. However and in addition to this, what I found especially interesting were the details of life on the island of Hong Kong before, during and after the war, a segment of history about which I knew very little, something that this novel has, to a certain extent, rectified.

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

A Glimpse of Nineteenth Century Life Through the Eyes of a Cocker Spaniel: Flush by Virginia Woolf

While I find beauty and wonder in all creatures both great and small, I must admit to a particular fondness for the canine. In fact, I will often introduce my own dog, a wire fox terrier named Thatcher, as my first child. There seems to be a particular connection, an unspoken bond, between the human and the dog seldom found with other animals.

Additionally and in regards to literature, I count Virginia Woolf as one of my favorite writers. Ms. Woolf, in my mind, penned some of the loveliest and most sophisticated novels to be found in the literary firmament. With her use of various experimental styles, most prominently stream of consciousness, she creates such wondrous scenes with her prose that one feels as if one has actually entered a painting in the impressionist style, where characters and setting do not possess definite lines or boundaries and both are viewed through an enchanting haze of color and light.

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How are these two interests connected, you may ask. The answer: Ms. Woolf published a short book entitled Flush: A Biography in 1933 concerning a cocker spaniel of the same name and his experiences, as told from his perspective, with his mistress in nineteenth century London and Italy. Certain historical items are learned, which would, I imagine, otherwise escape the reader. For instance, dognapping for the criminal purpose of demanding a ransom was common at the time, with owners sometimes paying large sums; in fact, in this story Flush finds himself the victim of such an abduction, and his narration of this is quite moving and harrowing.

In addition to the unconventional stylistic approach of relating a story through the internal musings and observations of a dog, Ms. Woolf further employed this book as a means of providing the reader with a fictionalized look in to the life of one of the most popular and respected poets of the Victorian era, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who did indeed own a cocker spaniel to whom she dedicated some lovely poetic lines. Imagine your biography written by a close household pet; what an interesting story that would be.

Flush is a highly readable and entertaining tale that I would recommend to anyone, really, but most especially to the fellow lover of the dog and of the incomparable Virginia Woolf.

In closing, I will cite one stanza from Ms. Browning’s poem To Flush, My Dog:

Loving friend, the gift of one
Who her own true faith hath run
Through thy lower nature,
Be my benediction said
With my hand upon thy head,
Gentle fellow-creature !

Formats Available:  Book

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

The Continued Influence of Jane Austen on Contemporary Fiction: Longbourn by Jo Baker

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From various creatures of the ocean deep in Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters to the untimely and homicidal death of Mr. Wickham in P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, the literary works of Jane Austen continue to inspire the writers of today. With Longbourn, author Jo Baker throws her own hat into the ring with a unique take on that well-known story, Pride and Prejudice.

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The setting is the same as the original story, the country estate of the Bennet family named Longbourn, but it is the protagonist that is quite different: a young servant of the Bennet household by the name of Sarah. Through her viewpoint, the reader is provided a decidedly different picture of the Bennet family and their lives than the one that was penned by Ms. Austen.

As with the original, Jane Bennet takes long walks and reads, Mrs. Bennet gossips and plots marriage arrangements, the youngest daughters giggle together while speculating on romances, balls are attended, and dinner is served daily. But what was required “below stairs” to create and maintain this existence for the Bennet family? Through extensive research of the time period, Ms. Baker is able to provide an accurate description of the endless, difficult, and oftentimes unpleasant tasks that servants of this period faced each and every day, which will be of particular interest to fans of Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, and the like.

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Those sojourns through the English countryside, for example, enjoyed so much by Ms. Bennet and that so endeared her to the reader are seen quite differently by the servants, as Sarah ruminates:

“The petticoat had been three inches deep in mud when she’d retrieved it from the girls’ bedroom floor…the soap was not shifting the mark, but it was biting into her hands, already cracked and chapped and chilblained, making them sting. If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.”

While daily life of nineteenth century rural England is a prominent and fascinating feature of this novel, it is not the primary focus; rather, the personal intrigues of the original cast of characters and their servants (along with some newcomers imagined by Ms. Baker) provide the reader with the storylines that supply the most entertainment and surprise.

With the plethora that currently exists of novels written by contemporary authors who do homage to the works of Jane Austen, those readers interested in this type of fiction have many options. In Longbourn, Ms. Baker has added an additional title to this genre that is distinguished from the others with her fresh and inventive look at one of the most enduring works of English literature.

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

“This is what happens when you live in dreams, he thought: you dream this and you dream that and you sleep right through your life.”

A review of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

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What propels a person forward in life?  Ambition, goals, dreams?  As people move from childhood to adulthood and through their lives, it seems that many have a clear picture of what they believe their life will or should be in the future, but what if this vision and the reality of their situation never meet.  It is at such a fork in the road of life where one could possibly encounter beautiful ruins, that which is left of a person when ambition, goals, or dreams have faded in to the reality of everyday living.  But even ruins have a certain charm.

In his 2012 book, Beautiful Ruins, Mr. Walter investigates this idea through the lives of rather diverse characters.  The year is 1962, and a dying American actress finds herself in a dying fishing village situated in a mere crack of the Italian coast on the Ligurian Sea.  Fresh from Rome and the production of the epic film Cleopatra, she basks in the obscurity of the village’s one small pension aptly named the Hotel Adequate View.

With a timeline that shifts between 1960s Italy and modern-day Hollywood, a cast of characters is introduced who are all desperately trying to bring to fruition that which they have dreamed as their future.  And from where do these dreams spring forth?  What forces in one’s life are powerful enough to create such dreams?  Of one character, Claire, Mr. Walter writes:

“We want what we want. At home, she works herself into a frenzy worrying about what she isn’t – and perhaps loses track of just where she is.”

 As the novel progresses, the reader becomes intertwined with the various quests being made, ever wondering the final outcome.  In your experience, just how often does illusion become reality?

“But aren’t all great quests folly? There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant – sail for Asia and stumble on America – and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along.”

 Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type and Large Type), eBook, Audiobook (CD), Downloadable Audiobook, Playaway

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

Our Kids: the American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam

“When I was growing up in Port Clinton 50 years ago, my parents talked about, ‘We’ve got to do things for our kids. We’ve got to pay higher taxes so our kids can have a better swimming pool, or we’ve got to pay higher taxes so we can have a new French department in school,’ or whatever. When they said that, they did not just mean my sister and me — it was all the kids here in town, of all sorts. But what’s happened…is that over this last 30, 40, 50 years, the meaning of ‘our kids’ has narrowed and narrowed and narrowed so that now when people say, ‘We’ve got to do something for our kids,’ they mean MY biological kids.”  – Robert D. Putnam

In his latest work, Robert D. Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, puts forth an issue that he fervently believes should today be one of the primary topics of domestic public policy at the government level and household discussion among the citizenry: the drastic and growing divide in the United States between affluent and non-affluent children.

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In order to support his supposition, Mr. Putnam narrates many stories of both rich and poor children that he learned of through the personal interviews that he and his team of ethnographers and statisticians had with these young people. While these interviews originate in towns and cities across the country, he has an especially narrow focus on his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio in which he compares and contrasts the picture these current narratives paint with that of his own personal past in which he believes the phrase “our kids” would be taken to refer to all the children of a particular community, as opposed to one’s own biological offspring; in other words, people in the United States today tend to not care about an issue if it does not directly affect their own children, even if the overall society suffers, and Mr. Putnam warns that this is a dangerous trend, as everyone and society as a whole benefits from the success of “our kids.”

“The evidence suggests that when in American history we’ve invested more in the education of less well-off kids, it’s been good for everybody,” Mr. Putnam states. “My grandchildren are going to pay a huge price in their adult life because there’s a bunch of other kids, in principle just as productive as them, who didn’t get investments from their family and community, and therefore are not productive citizens. The best economic estimates are that the costs to everybody, including my own grandchildren, of not investing in those ‘other people’s kids’ are going to be very high.”

Our Kids is highly engaging and balances the personal narratives with much data and many graphs that do not overwhelm, but rather compliment his point. Mr. Putnam does a fine job of defining and describing an issue of great import to the country today, which he hopes, and others I am sure hope, will not become partisan; rather, the focus should be on solutions.

“This investment is not yet seen as a partisan issue, and it shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The notion that all of us have a shared interest in investing in our shared future, which is these kids, is not and has not historically been a partisan issue.”  – Robert D. Putnam

Source of quotes:
Putnam, Robert D. (2015, March 19). Why you should care about other people’s kids. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/care-peoples-kids

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type and Large Type), eBook, Audiobook (CD)

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

Facing Adversity: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

 

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“Let me embrace thee, sour Adversity
For wise men say it is the wisest course.”
– King Henry, Henry VI, Part Three, Act III, Scene I, William Shakespeare

Have you at any time considered your conduct should the thing you most value be taken from you, a loss that would throw in to doubt both present and future? Whether you have or not, please take a moment to carefully ponder this notion. What is it you imagine, I wonder? Bitterness, hope, resentment, or religiosity? No matter our station in life, one thing is certain: we will at some point encounter adversity, and it is at this moment that our true nature is revealed.

It is just such a scenario faced by the protagonist of Gabrielle Zevin’s latest work of fiction, A.J. Fikry, who is the young proprietor of a small business located in a charming purple Victorian cottage whose front porch sign invites:

ISLAND BOOKS
Alice Island’s Exclusive Provider of Fine Literary Content since 1999
No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World

From the start, it seems clear what A.J.’s choice is. However, fate has a way of thwarting the most carefully laid of plans, and A.J. finds himself with a unique challenge when returning from a run he discovers a baby girl alone among the few children’s picture books he stocks.

As the story progresses, the reader is drawn into the small community on Alice Island, a simple ferry ride from the coast of Massachusetts. Plagued in the past by slow traffic, business begins to increase due to the sudden youthful addition to Island Books, allowing A.J. the opportunity to share his literary expertise and to affect the lives of his fellow islanders through the power of literature.

A.J., a non-native of the island, was once considered an outsider and now finds himself creating connections and finding an acceptance that was previously neither sought nor bestowed. Book discussion groups multiply at the bookshop, with the local police chief’s, named the Chief’s Choice, becoming especially popular. A.J. navigates a variety of sticky situations, from a visit by an drunken author/Santa Claus impersonator to a sister-in-law married to a local celebrity infamous for his philandering, all the while admirably playing the hand that he was dealt.

Ms. Zevin has written an engaging book that presents the reader with an investigation of that very old concept of adversity and the role that fate can play, all through the framework of a very believable character, A.J., a person who, when first encountered, appears an unremarkable curmudgeon, but, in the end, is quite the opposite.

come on, sweetheart
let’s adore one another
before there is no more
of you and me”

– Rumi (Epigraph of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry)

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type and Large Type), eBook, Audiobook (CD)

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill