Sunday, February 2, 2014

January 2014 Book Reports

I'm starting a new thing with my 2014 book reports. My Dad, Robert Lee ("Bob" for the purposes of these posts), asked me to read books with him once a month and I agreed if he'd write up his review/report for my monthly book post. Anyone who really knows my Dad knows that his taste in books is hard to define. I've tried for years. So far I've given him two or three titles and the one he finds at his public library is the one we read together. The first report each month will be the Dad/Daughter book of the month, the second book will be one I chose and read on my own, and the third will be one that I read with Bridget (who is seven years-old). There may be months when I have more that I've read on my own. Months that I don't binge on three seasons of "Veronica Mars" in two weeks, probably. (I've sworn off TV show binging for February. It's affecting my dreams.)

1. The Last Lion 2: Winston Spencer Churchill Alone 1932-1940 by William Raymond Manchester
Bob: Perhaps a better title for this volume would be “A Tale of Three Men: Churchill, Chamberlain, and Hitler.” This volume is not so much a biography of Churchill as it is the details of events and interactions of nations and men leading up to the Second World War. The significance of the title springs from the fact that Churchill, a member of parliament for 30 years, was, for 8 of those years, put on the “back bench.” He had no responsibilities in leading the government, eventually attending meetings only when his vote might be extraordinarily important.
Nicole: I'd throw Baldwin in there as well. Manchester did an extraordinary job making all of this fluid and interesting - there were a lot of balls in the air with the men and the war. Even though Churchill was on the back bench during these years, he was still very busy all the time. He kept himself in on all the action by creating a network of sources who kept him up-to-the-minute on all the news.

Bob: Ironically, his warnings about the intentions of  Hitler went unheeded and England ultimately found itself in a war that could have been avoided, were it not for the arrogance of Neville Chamberlain.William Manchester’s style is daunting. The dates and places and names at times are overwhelming. But, if one is patient, the introduction of key players in the beginning chapters, gives a richness and texture to the concluding chapters that would have been impossible otherwise.
Nicole: I read this on my Kindle (I had suggested the first volume in Manchester's three volume series on Churchill and Dad found the second volume at the library, so we read the second volume :)) and found it difficult to go back to figure out who we were talking about. So, I just went along not bothering to go back. Good thing I won't be tested on all this, eh?

Bob: We find ourselves becoming increasingly at home in Churchill’s estate, Chartwell. We become equally cozy at Number 10 Downing Street as a “fly on the wall” in the conversations between Chamberlain and the members of the cabinet. And, for the sake of equal time – which adds important context to the events – we follow the movements and plans of Hitler, as all the events leading to war converge.
Nicole: I loved this aspect of the book. We really did see all the angles. (I especially liked being inside Chartwell. Churchill was prolific in his interests.) Churchill's underground sources painted the picture of Hitler preparing for war, but Chamberlain refused to accept that conclusion. Britain didn't want to be at war, so it was political suicide to suggest rearmament in the early 1930s. 

Bob: Manchester shows the flaws of all the characters as well as the brilliance. Churchill, by today’s standards, was an alcoholic. Yet, he understood the direction of fascism and accurately predicted its objectives. Chamberlain was inordinately self-confident and self-absorbed. Yet, he understood the procedures of government in his country and could use them to his advantage (and sometimes to the country’s advantage). Hitler seemed to be able to read people and governments, anticipating actions that others would have dismissed. Yet, at the same time, he was a blood-thirsty fool.
Nicole: Churchill studied Hitler's speeches and recognized the pattern that Hitler was saying the exact opposite of what he actually believed and what he was actually doing. Churchill was one of the few people at the time to call Hitler out. And Hitler despised Churchill. The (seemingly) one person who could see through him. (There would be others later, of course.)

Bob: How disappointing to read of the abandonment of Czechoslovakia and Poland. How disappointing to see that entry into the war to free those countries was delayed beyond a point of redemption. This is even more disappointing when one realizes that, when the war was over, those two nations were under Soviet control rather than German control – the Soviets being by far the more bitter medicine. In other words, when all is said and done, millions died for no reason.
And Manchester places the blame for it all squarely on the shoulders of Chamberlain, and perhaps rightfully so. However, the post-World War I British people, with a mindset of never going to war again, a mindset that universally prevailed in the Empire, must share in the blame. Chamberlain was only doing what the country and Parliament wished – which makes Churchill all the more remarkable.
Nicole: Especially disappointing when there were so many opportunities to take action. It's true, Chamberlain and Baldwin were only doing what they were elected to do. For Baldwin, anyway, he admitted that he put politics before country when he decided not to spend the money on Britain's military defense.
Bob: I found myself aching for Churchill – trying to pay his bills, trying to keep his estate intact, trying to have a family life, trying to put another brick on the fence, trying to write “The History of the English Speaking people,” and trying to be a good citizen and member of Parliament (though they didn’t seem to care if he was or wasn’t). It staggers the imagination to think what this man might have accomplished had he not been nearly drunk all the time. Or, perhaps it was the alcohol coursing through his veins that made what he did accomplish possible.
Nicole: Ha! He literally had alcohol with breakfast. Churchill took 30 minutes a day to sit by his pond and think. Yes, he had a lot of information coming in every day, but he took the time to think about all the information. I've decided that's what is missing in my life - I need to stop and digest all the information and decide what I think. Really, Churchill probably had more power/influence being a back-bencher. He didn't worry about the political fallout as much as Chamberlain did. I liked this quote from the book: "William James once wrote that men of genius differ from ordinary men not in any innate quality of the brain, but in the aims and purposes on which they concentrate and in the degree of concentration which they manage to achieve."

Bob: The more I read, the more it seemed that these three men – each with their genius, each with their warts – appeared to have no inclination to pray, to seek Divine guidance, to ponder upon the lessons of scripture. It was by their powers of logic that all events preceded, and the world was the worse for it.
Nicole: I wonder what Churchill would have been like with that streak of humility and knowledge of God. One of Churchill's "warts" was that once he made up his mind as to the threat (only Hitler and Germany), he couldn't see any other threats. And he was such a snob. :)

Bob: What are the lessons to be learned from this volume? Perhaps the greatest is to judge the motives of nations by their actions, not their words or their stated intentions. Perhaps it is to trust the officers of one’s own government more than the officers of foreign governments. Or, perhaps it is never to be unprepared to fight against another nation. These were all the blunders of England in the mid-to-late 1930s.
Nicole: Nice! Now I have to think what I learned... :) I want to throw in one of my favorite quotes here - it's the essence of why Churchill still has an impact today. "The key to a speaker's impact on his audience, he [Churchill] believed, was sincerity: 'Before he can inspire them with any emotion he must be swayed by it himself... Before he can move their tears his own must flow. To convince them he must himself believe. He who enjoys it [the gift of rhetoric] wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable.'" Churchill wrote that as a young man in college, not knowing that he would be the man abandoned by his party, betrayed by friends, stripped (more like denied) his offices and he still commanded great power through his speeches.

Bob: America, it seems, has not learned the lesson taught by the British. Should we be surprised if the result is the same?
Nicole: Who is our Churchill today? Is there anyone out there right now who doesn't have the agenda of furthering their own career, gaining power? 

In conclusion, Dad and I both enjoyed this biography. Well-written, thoroughly researched, informative. I know I would recommend it to biography lovers.

2. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
This book was EVERYwhere. Goodreads was recommending it like crazy and then one of my goodreads friends gave it five stars and went on and on about how great it is. It is by far the yuckiest book I've ever read. I DO NOT RECOMMEND GONE GIRL. It made me feel gross. And I blame it for making me lose my faith in humanity.

The story is of Nick and Amy Dunn. Amy goes missing the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. All clues (there are a lot of them) point to Nick murdering his wife, then trying to cover it up. It's a juicy mystery, which is why I kept listening to it. I take issue, however, with the following:

1. Flynn over-used references to movie and TV. It felt like every climactic scene included someone thinking or saying something about how this is exactly like a movie or if the character were in a Lifetime movie they would say this or that. I watched a clip of Gillian Flynn on Jimmy Fallon and she said she was hoping as she wrote the book that it would be made into a movie. Of course it has been made into a movie, but I wish Flynn had been thinking about making a good book before dreaming about it becoming a movie.

2. So very very many swears. There are more cuss words in this book than all the other books I've ever read combined. It's the tell-tale sign that Gillian Flynn is not a good writer - she couldn't think of any other ways to express herself? Come on!

3. *****SPOILER ALERT***** With a character as evil and despicable as Amy, I waited around to see her get satisfactorily dealt with to no avail. That is 90% of the reason I kept listening to this book. There is no way...NO WAY...she could maintain that many lies without ever being caught.

4. Speaking of characters, not one person in this book is a redeemable human being. I shudder to think who Gillian Flynn hangs out with in real life. It's fine to present people as flawed or "human," but to have no one be decent? To have every single person be crappy in a significant way? Yuck.

That's all. Don't read this book. Don't listen to this book. Especially don't listen to this book because the Nick chapters are read by Kirby Heyborne, who is a returned missionary and has been in a lot of LDS-themed movies. Never listen to him say so many ugly words.

3. Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker
Clementine is a series of books about an 8 year-old girl named Clementine. She has curly red hair, lots of attitude, and she lives in the basement apartment of a building her Dad manages in New York City. Clementine has trouble paying attention in school, which is crazy because the thing she does best is pay attention. :) She just pays attention to the wrong things.

In the first book, Clementine gets into trouble almost right away for being in the wrong place at the wrong time - specifically the girls bathroom when her friend Margaret is cutting her own hair. Clementine gets blamed and ends up talking her way INTO the mess instead of out of it. Then Clementine cuts her hair so that Margaret won't be the only one.

Clementine's father (I think he's my favorite parent in all the books I've read with Bridget) is at war with the pigeons who are constantly perched all over the windows and ledges in front of his building. He has to hose the whole thing down twice a day and it doesn't seem to make any difference. Clementine ends up being the key to her father winning the war with the pigeons. As a reward, she gets a box and guess what's inside the box?!

*This is the part where I slowly put the bookmark in the book and pretended to put it away for the night. Bridget exclaimed, "Aw, come on!" Then the two of us laughed until our eyes watered. Because OF COURSE I wouldn't put the book away without reading what was in the box! Silly ol' bear.

I wouldn't mind reading another Clementine book. She's fun. :)


melissa said...

I haven't read your convo with Dad, yet, but thank you for reading Gone Girl so I don't have to. I'd heard only good things, too, except one person on Goodreads who said the exact same thing you did. How have we never read "Clementine"? Chloe and I thank you!

Jill said...

A book club with your dad! That sounds so great!

I love Clementine, especially the illustration by Marla Frazee. And thanks for the warning about Gone Girl because I have so many people tell me to read it and now I know I wont.

Jill said...

The other Jill. Cousin Jill. I commented in another place but I thought at the time, you READ this book. Unfortunately, I read it too. Your thoughts are my thoughts.

Jill said...

Oh, and I LOVE reading your blog. I am holding "Chruchill" at the library.