Monday, June 1, 2015

April/May 2015 Book Report

1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I was the only one who noticed there was no book report for April. I got cocky - I chose The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky for my classic in April. I've tried this book before, when I was 19 years old and between semesters at college. I bought a beautiful copy of it and I distinctly remember being at my Uncle Mark and Aunt Julie's house trying to read it. I was on a roll at the time - I had read some really good books that made me want to read more really good books. I got further this time, but I had to quit reading The Brothers Karamazov again. Twenty-three years later it still eludes me. Why do so many people love this book? Is it more accessible if you speak Russian and can read it in Russian? Is it like Ulysses by James Joyce? Because I spent a semester in college on that noise and I still don't know if I get it. (Remember when Jennifer Connelly said Ulysses was one of her top five books of all time in Oprah Magazine? Don't make me laugh.)

So, yeah. The quest to finish The Brothers Karamazov is over for me. I read almost to the halfway mark and stopped, then I spent several days reading nothing because that is what happens. Everyone in this book has five names. It's probably obvious in Russian that certain names would be a nickname for the longer name, but not so much in English. (You know, like Bill is obviously a nickname for William in English. Maybe someone who only speaks Russian would be like, "Why do they always say Bill when that guy's name is William?") What I got was the father of the three brothers was a terrible human being. He abused his first wife - she gave birth to the first brother, Dmetri (one of his names). Papa Karamazov succeeded in getting her to leave him, then he takes up with a local crazy girl and has two more children, Ivan and Alyosha. Dmetri and his father are in love with the same woman and she might be a prostitute? Dmetri was in love with a different woman and now Ivan is in love with her. Alyosha is everyone's favorite, but he wants to be a monk.

Hmmm. I just realized that the women in this book were either shrews or crazy. They were dismissed, really. Why would I like that? Moving on...

2. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
When I saw that this book was coming out May 5th, I sent my Dad an all-caps text. We've cut back on the books we report on together, but I knew that this would be one that both of us would love. Dad's even been to Kitty Hawk! And it's David McCullough. I listened to him read The Wright Brothers, which made me want to be his friend in real life even more than I already did. I asked Dad to tell me his three favorite things about the book.

Bob: I read an interview with David McCullough where he said one of the things he tries to do is write a picture you can see and then he asks himself if the picture is clear. Since I've been to Killdale Hills, I felt like I was there. I could see the plane taking off.

I admired the work ethic of the Wright brothers. They were unflappable - no failure ever stopped them. They knew they would solve the problem. The brothers did all their research independently - they used their own money and never asked for grants. They didn't make money until much later.

My favorite moment, the one that made me emotional, was near the end when Wilbur and Orville flew together. (They always flew one at a time before in case one of them was killed so they could keep their ideas alive.) They'd trained others to fly and there was no question of the quality of their product and the perpetuation of their dream.

This was the first book in a decade that I couldn't wait to read again.

Nicole: McCullough is one of my favorites for the very reason Dad mentioned first - his words make a clear picture. I felt like I really knew the brothers and their father, "Bishop Wright" and their sister, Catherine by the time the book was over. (Also, when I was singing with the madrigal choir in high school we sang a song about Dayton, Ohio in 1903. "Would you like to come over for tea-e-e? With the missus and me? It's a real nice way to spend your day in Dayton, Ohio, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in 1903." That tune was on a constant loop in my head for a week.)

Wilbur and Orville Wright were single-minded in their quest to solve the "problem" of man flying. Nothing distracted them. They watched birds flying and imitated with their arms what the wings were doing. They went to the windiest place with plenty of open land to experiment with different versions of their machine because "no bird soars in a calm." When Wilbur got off the ground in their plane for the first time (the above photo) I was sitting in a gym while the boys played baseball and I couldn't stop myself from crying. They changed everything, you guys! 

I was impressed with Wilbur and Orville's work ethic, too. I especially love that we have their own words (through letters to Catharine) to get a fuller picture. So many photos of Wilbur especially make it look like they had no sense of humor, but they were delightful with the people who knew them best.

One of my favorite moments was when Bishop Wright finally went for a ride in a plane with Orville. He was a minister and quite strict with his children. (When Wilbur was in Europe for the first time at age 39, his father cautioned him about drinking and women even though Wilbur had never had a problem with either his whole life. Basically the Bishop was telling him to remember who he is - not  one of the famous brothers who invented the airplane, but a member of the Wright family of Dayton, Ohio.) Bishop Wright shouted to Orville, "Higher, Orv! Higher!" 

I love this book so much. The Wright Brothers are the template for the American Dream. Hard work, intelligence, temperance, humor, graciousness. Read this book - it will restore your faith in humanity.

3. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
The living area, hallway, and bathroom on our main floor were painted during May. I couldn't be in the house and I couldn't let the kids in the house for five days and then we couldn't cook in our kitchen or use the upstairs bathroom for a total of eight days. My entire pantry was in boxes on and under the kitchen table, which was moved away from the wall. And there were strangers in my house, coming and going as they pleased. AND Brian was out-of-town for three of those days. The suffering! Good thing I was reading about the sinking of the Lusitania, eh? At least I'm not on a giant ship sinking into the ocean 11 miles from shore with my life jacket on upside-down. Perspective.

A German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania, a passenger liner, in May 1915 - 100 years ago. I thought that was THE thing that got the United States involved in World War I, but it was two years later that President Wilson sent troops.

Larson follows some passengers on the Lusitania and her captain, William Turner, as well as U-20, the German submarine who sank her. We also get to see a little of what President Wilson was going through (new love interest after his wife died) and Room 40, a super-secret spy organization in London who knew where U-20 was and knew that the U-boat had fired on everything, neutral or not. Every storyline was interesting, but I looked forward to the chapters on the boat. Very few passengers were worried about being torpedoed even though the Germans published a warning in American newspapers the day the Lusitania was to leave. The ship was traveling from New York to Liverpool during a war in an ocean full of German submarines. But! I have the 20-20 hindsight, don't I.

The torpedo doesn't show up until more than halfway through the book, so the suspense had definitely built up. "An instant later, he saw something moving across the flat plane of the sea, a track, as clear as if it had been made by 'an invisible hand with a piece of chalk on a blackboard.'" All I can say is that it had to be destiny that the Lusitania sank and all those people died. (There was at least one passenger who canceled her ticket on the Lusitania who was also a passenger on the Titanic. Another guy who canceled his ticket at the last minute was on the Hindenburg when it went down. Crazy, right?!) One torpedo shouldn't have done it, the lifeboats should have worked, they were almost there! The torpedo hit right by the baggage room where almost the entire crew were getting luggage out. The crew who knew how to launch the life boats.

It was a fun, immersive experience to read Dead Wake and listen to The Wright Brothers at about the same time. Both remarkable, true stories.

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