Book Reviews - a Winter Collection

Five Skies by Ron Carlson, (Penguin, 2008

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The beautiful skies of the high plateau in Southern Idaho are the tableau against which Carlson draws this compact tale of three lonely men who come together to construct a reality TV set.  Each has a difficult background:  Darwin, death of a spouse; Art, death of a brother and Ronnie, petty criminal.  The opportunity of a summer job with good pay brings them to the Idaho plateau where they establish camp and a work rhythm.  The set reveals as it is built, without much focus on the production itself.  The focus is on the development of trust, friendship and grief.  Highly recommended.



Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West by Wlliam Drozdiak (W. W Norton & Company Ltd., 2017)

Taut read that covers a lot of territory—almost all of Europe.  In journalist style, Drozdiak delivers most pertinent 21st Century history about 13 European countries and Washington D.C.  How different it is today that at the close of the 20th Century when a united Europe seemed almost a certainty.  His thesis is that the rise of nationalism within the European countries has weakened the strength of numbers, threatens global trade, and leaves them weak and susceptible to Russian interference, if not takeover.  This is a good read if you follow U.S. and European current events and sometimes cannot figure out “the back story”.


Elizabeth Bishop:  A Miracle for Breakfast by Megan Marshall, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

This is a new biography of Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979), one of the U.S.’s greatest poets.  She was born in Lowell, MA.  Her father died when she was one and her mother was committed to an asylum when she was five.  She was raised by her mother’s family in Nova Scotia, a time she recalls fondly.  Her father’s wealthy family brought her to U.S. for a boarding high school and Smith College.   Early on, she acknowledged she was lesbian and had lots of lady friends throughout school.  Her great love was an architect from Brazil, Lota de Macedo Soares.  Elizabeth lived off and on in Brazil for years, and the country influenced her writing.  Her actual literary output was small, but perfect—100 poems.  She won the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize and was U.S. Poet Laureate in 1959.

This biography is written by one of Bishop’s students at Harvard, so there are interesting insights into her professional life as well as her difficult, personal life.  If you are into poetry, this is a good read.


The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey by Salman Rushdie (Picador, 1987)

A short book that I listened to in the car, it was Rushdie’s first non-fiction book.  It details his three-week visit to Nicaragua in 1979, while the Sandinistas were in power.  He was invited by an arts organization, and in a style reminiscent of Paul Theroux, does little to paint a pretty picture of what he finds.  On the one hand, life is better, more democratic (if that means better) for the mestizos and indios.  On the other, the Sandinistas were enjoying power and money much the same way that that powerful people do.  Ties were close with Cuba, and the U.S., supporting the Contras, was hated.  

At the end of the book, there is an Epilogue that Rushdie wrote in the 90’s when the book was republished.  That should be read first to really benefit from the content of the book.  It provides the perspective of time.  Eventually the sanctions imposed by the U.S. choked the Nicaraguan economy and the Sandinistas were democratically voted out of power.  A good little book if you like history in the Americas.

Phineas Finn: The Irish Member by Anthony Trollope, originally published as a serial October 1867 to May 1868 in St Paul's Magazine, London, England.  Read by


Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope were contemporaries in the U.K. literary world.  So why is Dickens a household name and most readers have not heard of Trollope?  Some say Dickens was a more creative writer, with memorable characters and a unique knack for portraying hardscrabble London and general misery.  Trollope is gentler, easier to read (for me).  Dickens is the fruit cake and Trollope the egg custard—both lovely, but in different ways.  Trollope’s 40 novels usually run in series, and there is enjoyment in tracing the characters who appear, downstage, front and center, then in another book, upstage, a marginal figure.  

Phineas Finn is part of Trollope’s Pallisar Series.  Finn is Irish, a unique hero in any mid-19th century British book.  It deals with both British parliamentary politics of the 1860's, including voting reform (secret ballot and eliminating rotten boroughs and Irish tenant-rights) and Finn's romances with women of fortune, which would secure his financial future.  The education and the romance are never heavy-handed.  These would be excellent books to read to children as my grandmother did for me with Dickens’s novels.  They are also good books for listening.  They are large and heavy to tote as print books; and, if you miss a paragraph or two on the recording, it’s no big thing.  Recommended