West with the Night

by Beryl Markham

This book group selection was a very quick read. Originally I thought this book would be an autobiography, but it leaves out so much of her life, that it’s probably best described or categorized as a limited memoir. In any event, it makes a fascinating story told in beautiful, poetic prose.

Beryl Markham led a remarkable life. She grew up in Africa with her father, raised/bred/raced thoroughbred horses, became the first women in Africa to get her commercial grade pilots license, and scouted for safaris…and that’s not to mention the many adventures and death defying episodes of her childhood. The title of the book refers to her experience as the first person to cross the Atlantic from East to West. She loved Africa and had great appreciation for its many faces. The book imparts an image of a very reserved character who enjoys the silence and solitude that is endemic to the life of an African bush pilot in the 1930s. In our book group meeting, there were numerous comments on her apparent dispassion or distance from the stories she told. I’m more inclined to believe that she felt things closely and held the people who were important to her close to her heart, but was inclined to keep those aspects of her character private…not only from her readers, but also from those who were closest to her.

As usual, I checked my book out from the library. One day at lunch, I noticed Lynn had a different library copy and I just felt completely gypped…her copy included pictures! She was kind enough to let me look at them, but that just led to additional amazement. The pictures included photos of Beryl as a 16-year-old bride as well as pictures from her 2nd marriage that included snapshots of her mother. The entire memoir never once mentioned marriage, or any contact she had with her mother. Through the discussion we had at book group, it turns out she also had a child and was considered fairly promiscuous…something that doesn’t come across at all in the book. With all of these revelations, I must again confess (as I did after reading Benjamin Franklin) that I’m very interested in reading more about Beryl Markham. I understand The Lives of Beryl Markham by Errol Trzebinski would be a good biography to pick up next.

Posted by jfer at 11:39 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

by Ross King

This was a fascinating book. Frankly, I'm surprised by how well I enjoyed it since non-fiction is not my usual literature of choice.

The book offers wonderful details on the incredible chore of painting such a huge expanse of vaulted ceiling. It also debunks a number of common myths. For example, Michelangelo did not paint the ceiling while lying on his back. There was about a 6 foot clearance between the floor of the scaffolding and the painting surface. Admittedly, this would not be a very comfortable position to work for the four years Michelangelo labored, but it certainly doesn't have him crawling around on his back to get from one spot to another.

Despite the title, this book is about much more than Michelangelo and his experiences painting the Sistine Chapel. It includes a detailed accounting of not only Michelangelo and his relationship with the pope, but also tales of the popes ambitions and military conquests as well as the information on Michelangelo's contemporary rivals in the art world: Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael, etc.

This is definitely a book worth reading. I highly recommend it to anybody who has ever even had the slightest hope of seeing the Sistine Chapel is person or who has ever admired the "Creation of Adam" which has become the iconical representation of the entire work in our modern times.

Posted by jfer at 1:29 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack


by Marjane Satrapi

This book is a graphic memoir of the author's childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It has been compared to another graphic novel called Maus by Art Spiegelman which is about a Jewish-Polish family's experiences in the Nazi death camps.

The comic book format of this book made for a very quick read and was a good medium to introduce one to Iran's Islamic Revolution and war with Iraq. The story is filtered through the eyes of an adolescent/young teenage girl, Marji, so it doesn't get lost in the details (dates, names, battles) that often loose my interest in more traditional history books.

Marji's parents are well educated, progressive, and encourage their daughter through their own example to be the same. As the Iranian society gets more and more restrictive - especially for the women - the young Marji often doesn't understand the need to maintain a public facade that is completely different from her home life and consequently has a number of run-ins with the instructors at her school and various authority figures in the streets. She is a typically rebellious teenager who atypically is forced to contend with governmental oppression, persecution of friends and family, and the uncertainties of war.

I did enjoy this book and would be interested in reading the sequels about the author's life in exile. I'm also very interested in reading Maus to see for myself how the two novels compare.

Posted by jfer at 1:59 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles

by Anthony Swofford

I don't generally read military memoirs. I picked this one up because it was an also-ran at bookgroup and one that Stepan read and seemed to enjoy.

This book is Anthony Swofford's recollections of his experiences as a marine in the first Gulf War. It includes vignettes from his childhood as an army brat, boot camp, and transitioning into an elite sniper unit within the Marines.

He writes about the politics of war - politics within the military and brief glimpses of Washington politics, which was vaguely fascinating. For example, I had no idea Dick Chaney was so involved in the first conflict (yes, I did have my head in the sand...I was a freshman at college!). Also, within the military, you have to be careful whom you piss off or you just might find yourself stuck with the duty of burning the contents of the cans that collect the wastes from the latrines. There is also a "no salute" rule within combat zones to prevent the enemy from being able to easily identify those in command (who knew the military could be so practical?).

I think parts of the book were meant to be shocking, but weren't anything I wouldn't expect from a group of aggressive men, living in a military encampment, who have to maintain the mythos of machismo in order to face the jobs they may be called upon to do. Not to say the book wasn't without it's frank admissions of terror when the company uncounted the few combat situations that were detailed here.

Bottom line: I don't think I would recommend this book to anybody, but I'm glad I read it.

Posted by jfer at 8:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Progue Golum: Stories from the Jewish Ghetto

Translated by Sona Maresova

I had a hard time deciding if this book should be classified as "fiction" or "non-fiction". I classified it as "non-fiction" because Dewey includes a section for "Customs, etiquette, folklore".

I picked this book up in a bookstore on Old Town Square in Prague. Despite it's title, the story of the Golum is on one of about 15 folk stories related from the Czech Jewish tradition. It begins with "How the Jews came to Bohemia" and continues through many stories of morality and coping with the persecution that the Jews have faced throughout history.

I enjoyed reading this booklet (64 pages including the 1 page source page). As with all collections of short stories, it will be a great book to keep on my bookshelf for whenever I have a just a few minutes to spend lost in the pages of a book.

Posted by jfer at 2:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Benjamin Franklin

by Edmond S. Morgan

This book group book (offered by Theresa) was a fascinating read though I didn't much like the writing style. I felt like I was reading someone's lecture. That shouldn't be too surprising considering that the author is a college professor.

I was fascinated to learn that a good portion of Franklin's early career was dedicated to preserving the union between Great Britain and America. He started to consider himself an American (as opposed to a British American) only after he tried for several years to get the British government to take heed of the rights and opinions of the English subjects living in the colonies.

This book offered many views of Franklin (scientist, statesman, ladies' man), but wasn't able to bring Franklin alive for me. It introduced questions that it didn't answer, though those questions seem to be unanswerable: who was the mother of Franklin's illegitimate son, William? how did he feel/react to the rift between him and William caused by the American rebellion? why did he spend so much time away from his wife? did he mourn her death during is extended appointment to France?

On the other hand, this book did interest me in reading more about Ben Franklin (especially his autobiography), the Revolutionary War, and biographies on other important American characters of the age, especially John Adams and George Washington.

In the final analysis, I just don't read enough non-fiction to recommend or pan this book. And while I didn't enjoy the author's writing style, I did find it an interesting and informative read.

Posted by jfer at 11:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack