The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

A beautiful Victorian house situated in an upscale Philadelphia neighborhood becomes the focal point for a family broken by secrets and jealousy in Ann Patchett’s newest book The Dutch House.

Danny Conroy is just six when his mother leaves and never returns. His father is withdrawn and taciturn – not a model of warmth and caring. However, his sister Maeve, who is 12 when their mother leaves, steps in and becomes his greatest ally. The bond between the siblings is very strong and loving and only strengthens when, out of the blue, their father remarries.

The new stepmother, Andrea arrives with her two little girls. The kids all get along fairly well, but Andrea has no interest in Danny and Maeve and works diligently to exclude them from the family.  Maeve is moved from her favored large bedroom to an smaller room so that one of the little girls can have it and the housekeepers, who helped raise Danny and Maeve, are shunted aside. Their father becomes more and more distant, finding as many excuses as possible to be absent.

The Dutch house (as it is known in the neighborhood) stands central to all of these trials. Built by old money, their father purchased it with all of the furniture and family portraits of the former owners included. It was a symbol to Danny and Maeve’s father of his success, but it was also, with it’s overwhelming opulence and expensive furnishings, what drove their mother away. Andrea married their father because she wanted the house and the status that it gave her.  When Danny and Maeve are forced to leave the house it haunts them for years.

Now, this all sounds pretty glum and it’s true that the book is sometimes sad, but it is also about forgiveness, redemption and letting go of the past. I loved the relationship between Danny and Maeve, a brother-sister duo that rang true – great loyalty and love but they also aren’t afraid to poke at each other. Patchett’s writing style is lovely – smooth and graceful but never fussy. Her characters are like us – smart and funny and flawed, but never beyond saving. Read this for the intriguing story, the gorgeous writing and an ending that brings hope and recovery.

 

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check

Hey Readers! How’s your February reading? Need a few more suggestions? Here are some movies that would count for our month of Gone with the Wind.

Lincoln with a virtuoso, Oscar winning performance from Daniel Day Lewis, this movie follows an Abraham Lincoln worn down by the war as he works to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment near the end of the Civil War.

Cold Mountain, another Oscar winning film (for Best Supporting Actress Rene Zellwinger), brings to life Charles Fraizer’s novel of a Confederate soldier who deserts and tries to return to his young wife. Also starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman.

Mercy Street, a television series that originally aired on PBS, is set in 1862 in Alexandria, Virginia which is located near the border between North and South. The Union has taken over a hotel owned by Southern sympathizers and have made it into a Union Army hospital.

Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War brought visual storytelling to a whole new level when it aired on PBS. More than a recounting of battles, it delves into the lives of those involved, from the Generals to the ordinary soldier to those left at home.

And of course, there’s Gone with the Wind our inspiration for the month and well worth watching (or re-watching!)

 

The Hidden Half of Nature by David R. Montgomery and Anne Bikle

guest post by Laura V

After reading Montgomery’s most recent book, Growing a Revolution followed by Josh Axe’s Eat Dirt, the parallels I had begun to see my separate explorations of regenerative agriculture and human gut health seemed to align beyond a shadow of doubt. Then I stumbled upon one of Montgomery’s earlier books, The Hidden Half of Nature, in which he explains the biological backgrounds and importance of the two similar systems.

Montgomery and Biklé go about transforming a backyard full of lifeless dirt into a thriving ecosystem, above and below ground. Through extreme composting, they mimic the natural buildup of soil via decaying matter on an accelerated time frame nature could never accomplish. It is when Biklé finds herself stricken with cancer that the couple decides to fortify their gut microbiome with specific foods just as they “fed” their soil to provide a hospitable environment for good microbes. Dietary changes ensue and we get a biology lesson on the digestive system that probably no one learns in school…yet.

The biology lesson was interesting but I admit to my mind wandering a bit during those parts. I’m not a scientist so I just need a broad picture of what I’m learning, not so much the details. It was fun to learn about Lynn Margulis, a rebel biologist who in 1970 first hypothesized chloroplasts and mitochondria originated from ancient bacteria. The segment on the discovery of penicillin and other antibiotics was also amazing history.

What I found most fascinating and frustrating is throughout the industrial revolution and rise of synthetic chemical fertilizers, there have always been scientists or farmers who have sounded warnings that went unheeded. These scientists or citizen scientists showed tests crops in which fertilizing with compost, crop rotation, and no-tilling yielded heartier and more nutritious plants. I think the hubris of the scientific age along with chemical companies’ grip on agriculture has effectively buried all of these voices of reason under a field of increasingly useless dirt.

The study of both soil and human microbiology is relatively new and exciting. It is terrible to learn the percentage of nutrients plants have lost since the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides in the pursuit of greater yields. It’s no wonder people might have weight problems while eating large quantities of high calorie, low nutrient foods. On the flip side, people have lost their internal partners in nutrient absorption and natural defenders against bad germs due to the overuse of antibiotics.

Ever since men began to see hidden life under a microscope, we’ve been at war with pathogenic microbes, not understanding we’ve also been killing the allies that have been helping us thrive for millennia.

Online Reading Challenge – February

Hello Challenge Readers! Welcome to February!

This month our film is a favorite of many – Gone with the Wind starring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh. Set in the deep South before, during and after the Civil War, it is a triumph of storytelling and cinematic excellence (that famous burning of Atlanta scene is not easily forgotten). The dashing hero, the vain heroine, the elegance of plantation life (possible only with the enslavement of people), the horror of battle and the struggle to rebuild highlights one of the most important time periods of American history.

There are a lot of directions you can go when looking for a book related to this film. You can go straight to the heart and read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind which stands as an excellent choice on it’s own. There are also a lot of books about the making of the film itself which was nearly as dramatic as the movie!

A lot of popular books have been written about the Civil War including classics like Little Women by Louisa Alcott and The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. Anything about Abraham Lincoln – and there are lots of books about Lincoln – would be appropriate. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier is an award-winning novel about a soldier that goes AWOL and begins the long walk home while Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini looks at the controversial First Lady. For an in-depth description of battles turn to Shelby Foote (Shiloh) or Jeff Shaara’s Civil War series which includes The Killer Angels.

We cannot not overlook the terrible price paid by millions – the enslavement of African Americans. For a glimpse of slavery and its long lasting consequences try Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup or go for a classic such as There Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston or Roots by Alex Haley. Several recent titles such as Underground by Colson Whitehead and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi would be excellent choices as well as any title by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, especially Beloved.

Be sure to stop in at any of the Davenport Library locations and check out the Online Reading Challenge display where we’ll have these titles and lots more for you to choose from.

I’m going to be reading The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, a fictionalized account of abolitionist and member of the woman’s suffrage movement Sarah Grimke and her slave Hettie and their struggles during the Civil War era. It promises to be an excellent book.

What about you? What are you planning to read this month?

 

Online Reading Challenge – January Finish

Hello Fellow Readers!

We’ve reached the end of January and the finish of our first month of the 2020 Online Reading Challenge. How was your reading month? Were you able to find a good book or watch a movie somehow related to our theme of Casablanca?

I had an very good January, reading the excellent The Last Train to London by Meg Clayton, a remarkable story of courage and determination during the dark times just before and during the early years of World War II.

The book opens in the late 1930s when Hitler’s rise to power is throwing a dark cloud over Europe. The world watches in disbelief as threats against Jews grow but Truss Wijsmuller, a Dutch woman, is not standing by; she begins escorting Jewish children out of Austria to safety at great danger to herself. Most of the children are orphans, but as conditions worsen, parents begin making the heartrending decision to send their children away, desperate to protect them.

At first the Jews of Vienna believe they are safe – after all they have been loyal Austrians for generations and many no longer practice the Jewish faith. Vienna has long been a center of art and sophistication, Mozart and opera – surely nothing bad will happen here. However, within days of Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Germany), the rights of Jewish citizens have been stripped, their property and businesses seized and families forced from their homes.

The Last Train to London depicts real events, part of the Kindertransport rescue that saved nearly 10,000 children’t from Nazi-occupied Europe. Truus Wijsmuller was a real person, known to the children as Tante Truus, kind and warm-hearted but with the courage and determination to confront Adolf Eichmann (who was the creator of the “Jewish solution” that sent millions to their death) and insist that he allow 600 children to leave and immigrate to England. Clayton personalizes the novel by telling a story of two young adults caught up in the chaos and despair – Stephan, son of a wealthy Jewish businessman and Zofie, the daughter of an anit-Nazi journalist. Their fate becomes entwined with Tante Truus and a nearly impossible dream to escape. This is a white-knuckle, can’t-put-down novel of both the horrors humans are capable of, and of the great kindness and compassion of ordinary people. Highly recommended.

OK, now it’s your turn – what did you read this month? Let us know in the comments!

 

Closer Than Together by the Avett Brothers

guest post by Laura V

The Avett Brothers have always had energetic folk rock infused with some banjos and, occasionally, progressive themes. Closer Than Together, released in October 2019, surprised me with some very political songs intermixed with some new sounds as well as the old familiar Avett sound on other songs. It took a few listens to wrap my head around this album.

Here are the tracks:

  1. “Bleeding White”
  2. “Tell the Truth”
  3. “We Americans”
  4. “Long Story Short”
  5. “C Sections and Railway Trestles”
  6. “High Steppin’”
  7. “When You Learn”
  8. “Bang Bang”
  9. “Better Here”
  10. “New Woman’s World”
  11. “Who Will I Hold”
  12. “Locked Up”
  13. “It’s Raining Today”

My first impression was of the musical group The Black Keys to be honest when I heard Bleeding White. After listening a second time I could hear the Avett brand shine through so this song is a keeper on my playlist. I could dig a whole album of this edgier sound. Tell the Truth is more in line with a typical ballad from previous albums but it feels interrupted by the monologue in the middle.

We Americans is more like an essay than a song. It vaguely reminds me of a long political poem I wrote some 20 years ago. I’m not sure I like this one even though I agree 100% with the sentiments. It’s difficult to condense the immense complexity behind the problems in our country into catchy phrases and choruses so it doesn’t. In their mission statement for this album, they say, “We didn’t make a record that was meant to comment on the sociopolitical landscape that we live in. We did, however, make an album that is obviously informed by what is happening now on a grander scale all around us…because we are a part of it and it is a part of us.”

Long Story Short makes use of the literary device of multiple narrators. It’s a glimpse at the inner lives of several people loosely connected and works really well. C Sections and Railway Trestles is a jaunty tune celebrating recent parenthood. High Steppin’ is the icing on the 10th studio album cake that is Closer than Together. It is pure foot-stompin’ Avettness. (Go watch the video on YouTube, I’ll wait.) It is also split in half by a monologue but it sounds right in this song, not jarring.

When You Learn is more reminiscent of typical earlier Avett songs sure to please long-term fans. Bang Bang is a song that probably won’t go over well with the Avett’s gun-toting neighbors. Awkward. I, myself, have had similar musings about our culture’s predilection for violent movies and intense love of guns. I take the opposite opinion of theirs, however, I think people’s desire for violent books and movies is the reason they’re written, not media inciting violence.

Mobituaries by Mo Rocca

It might seem a bit morbid to be reading a whole book of obituaries, but in the hands of Mo Rocca it becomes a chance to celebrate the contributions of these people, many of whom are nearly forgotten footnotes to history. Mo teases out interesting little-known facts, explores backgrounds and upbringing, delves into personality quirks to paint a dynamic, multi-faceted portrait of each subject.

Some of Mobituaries more famous subjects include Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet “Common Sense” helped fuel the American Revolution but died in obscurity (apparently he wasn’t a very pleasant person and had no friends by the time he died); Audrey Hepburn who grew up in Holland and nearly died of starvation during the German occupation in World War II (although Hepburn was not Jewish, she felt a close kinship with Anne Frank who was the same age as Hepburn); and Billy Carter who, briefly, became almost as famous as his brother Jimmy and cultivated a country bumpkin manner that hid a sharp and thoughtful mind (there is an interesting quote from President Carter regarding his brother that kind of sums up their relationship). There’s Lawrence Welk who, despite what you think when you hear his accent, was not German at all, but born and raised in North Dakota; and Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins, who overcame great hardship and exploitation to become astute businessmen and raise large families.

Mobituaries also looks at the less famous that should be remembered for their contributions such as Elizabeth Jennings who has sometimes been called the Rosa Parks of New York City for breaking the color barrier on streetcars (among other accomplishments) or the first African American men elected to Congress (if you think that must of happened in the 1950s or 60s, you’re wrong; it happened in 1870).

And it’s not just people! Mo pays tribute to the station wagon and it’s demise, the disappearance of the country of Prussia and medical practices that have been debunked among other subjects. He includes the sad deaths of the Live Oaks of Toomer’s Corner, two famous trees that stood at the entrance of the University of Auburn’s campus. A center for celebrations when the Auburn Tigers won a game (especially against bitter rival Alabama), they were poisoned by a jealous Alabama fan and despite great effort, the trees perished.

Throughout the book, Mo is calm and non-judgmental, a good interviewer and listener, always with a dash of humor. He seems to be delighted in finding quirks and celebrates the courage and determination of many of his subjects. You’ll find lots of history and trivia in this book as well as an exploration of that strange creature, the human, with all their flaws and strengths, in good times and bad.

I also highly recommend Mo Rocca’s podcast, also called Mobituaries, where he reports on these stories and many others.

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check

Hello Challengers!

Just checking in halfway through the month to see how things are going for you. Have you been able to find a book you want to read? There are so many books set during World War II, it can be hard to pick one!

If you’re still looking, be sure to check the displays at each Davenport library location. And don’t forget about e-books – check our collection on the Overdrive or Libby app to see if a title you want to read is available to read on your Kindle or tablet (check with any librarian at the library if you need help getting started!)

Of course, sometimes the culprit is time – too many other obligations and distractions! In that case, maybe a movie would be a better idea. Here’s a few ideas.

Woman in Gold with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds follows the convoluted journey of one of Gustav Klimt’s most famous paintings, from it’s creation, to it’s seizure by the Nazi’s to it’s return to it’s rightful home.

The Courageous Heart of Irene Sendler – Starring Anna Paquin true story of a Polish social worker that was able to smuggle Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto.

Dunkirk with Tom Hardy, Harry Styles and Kenneth Branagh recreates the tense and daring rescue of thousands of Allied soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France.

Saving Private Ryan starring Tom Hanks. From the terrifying Allied invasion of Normandy to the dangerous, war-torn villages of France and Germany, eight soldiers are sent to bring home one.

The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightly is the fascinating story behind the Enigma machine and how the English broke the German’s secret code, saving thousands of lives.

Band of Brothers, a ten-part HBO mini-series about ‘Easy Company’ of the US Army who fought in several major battles including D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge and captured Hitler’s Eagles Nest while suffering major casualties.

And, of course, Casablanca. If you’ve never seen this classic, do yourself a favor and watch it now.

That’s just a small sampling. I’ve concentrated (both with movies and books) on the war in Europe, but there are many more set in the Pacific Theater. As always, read what interests you!

Happy reading (or watching!)

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on DVD

CIA analyst Jack Ryan sits behind a desk, working on a computer. He is not, he repeats, not a field agent. But when he uncovers a terrorist’s plan for a massive attack on the United States and her allies, he is pushed into action and sent on a dangerous mission to end the threat in season one of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

The story is somewhat familiar: Suliman, a high ranking tribal leader in the Middle East has gathered a group of followers and is planning a massive strike on the West. Working as an analyst, Jack discovers a pattern of suspicious bank transactions that lead him to believe Suliman is planning something devastating. Despite the fact that he isn’t a field agent, Jack’s boss sends him to the Middle East to investigate and stop whatever the terrorist has planned.

Based on Tom Clancy’s books about Jack Ryan, this television series delivers with lots of action, intrigue, secrets and close-calls. John Krasinski as Jack Ryan is likable and relate-able, the every man (although one with considerable gun skills) that is pushed into impossible situations but manages to stay-the-course and come out in one piece. Ryan’s background is hinted out, but never fully explained, we simply know that he served in the Special Forces in the Middle East and was badly injured in battle.

A mature, fast-paced exploration of very complex issues.

The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott

Edie believes her husband Francis died in 1918 in a horrific battle near the end of World War I when he is declared “missing, presumed killed”. But in 1921 she receives a photo of Francis in the mail with no letter or return address and she begins to wonder if he made it out alive and is waiting for her. She contacts Francis’s brother Harry, and asks him to help her, to either find Francis or find his grave.

Harry, who was with Francis when he was wounded, does not believe Francis is still alive, but he is in love with Edie and will do what he can to help. Harry has been working as a photographer, taking pictures of graves and battle-sites for grieving families back in England and he understands just how chaotic and devastated the French and Belgium countryside is – entire villages have completely disappeared, while others struggle to rebuild, fields are littered with shells and mortar and bones and whole forests are nothing but burned and broken stumps.

Returning to the places that Harry and Francis (and Will, their younger brother who was killed early in the war) fought is difficult for Harry as he is flooded with memories of what they had been, what they went through and what happened to them. It is obvious that Harry is suffering from what we now call PTSD but that he is coping and that Francis also suffered and was broken by the war. In addition, Harry is burdened with the fact that he has been in love with Edie for years and, while nothing happened between Harry and Edie, Francis cannot forgive him.

Edie and Harry, traveling both together and separately, meet a wide range of people suffering in the aftermath of the war – widows and families searching for lost soldiers (many that died were never identified or found) trying to find closure with a grave or memorial, veterans haunted by what they had witnessed, ordinary people struggling to survive.

The Poppy Wife paints an unapologetic portrait of “the Great War” and it’s devastating and long-reaching affects. The chapters move between the three brothers during the war and Harry and Edie’s search for Francis in 1921. Scott’s writing is calm and collected, almost poetic, but the horror and senselessness of what happened on those foreign fields is never far from the surface. And it is nearly impossible to put down as the tension and mystery builds. Highly recommended.

If you are interested in learning more about this time period, I highly recommend Vera Brittan’s Testament of Youth (which is not fiction but actually happened to her) which has been made into a mini-series, to watch A Very Long Engagement starring Audrey Tautou, and Peter Jackson’s brilliant documentary They Shall Not Grow Old in which footage from the war has been remastered, bringing the time vividly to life.