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Mona Lisa

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The Interior Circuit by Francisco Goldman

Subtitled “A Mexico City Chronicle,” The Interior Circuit is a memoir connecting journalist Francisco Goldman’s life in Mexico City, his attempts to regain his life after the death of his wife, and stories about the political and criminal landscape of the metropolis.

Goldman’s personal stories weren’t really very interesting.  Even his attempts to learn to drive a stick-shift in Mexico City traffic should have been amusing, but they failed to gain even a giggle out of me.  Despite mentioning the death of his wife and his attempts of move on, he didn’t dwell on this either – although to be fair, he had already written a book on the subject.  It did find his interpretations of the Mexico City politics and their connection with the Drug Cartels fascinating.  I didn’t know that much about the subject before, and it really piqued my interest, although I can’t say I was persuaded by some of the author’s political arguments.

There was some good stuff here, but everything seemed too hodge-podge, too loose.  A good editor might have been able to help.

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2014
336 pages

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Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered by Dianne Hales

As someone who has long been interested in genealogy, I know first-hand how little information is available when researching someone who was relatively unknown. When I picked started reading this book, I couldn’t imagine the author could come up with enough information about the famous sitter in DaVinci’s portrait to make the book interesting.  But I was wrong.

It is believed that Mona Lisa is actually Lisa Gherardini (1479-1542), who lived in Florence during the height of the Italian Renaissance.  Author Dianne Hales deftly interweaves stories of historical Florentine history with what we do know about Lisa G., her contemporaries, and Leonardo DaVinci.  There was plenty here to interest the reader, and I give the author kudos for all her excellent research.  My only complaint is the Hales used conjecture quite often, by posing questions meant to make us guess at to what Mona Lisa was thinking or what her personality was like.  More often than not, it leads to wishful, rather than historic thinking.  Still, I enjoyed the book and learned a little more about history, which is always a plus.

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2014
336 pages

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The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

In 1910, a massive forest fire engulfed 3 million acres in Northeast Washington, Northern Idaho and Western Montana.  The U.S. Forestry Service was still in it’s infancy, strapped for men and for cash, but nevertheless, these brave few faced the mammoth blaze and attempted to stop it.  Most of these men never lived to tell the tale.

Timothy Egan again, presents an exceptional work of history.  From  Teddy Roosevelt’s championing of conservation to the establishment of the National Parks and the U.S. Forestry Service, Egan sets the The Big Burn (as the 1910 fire was called) amid the backdrop of a country undergoing huge social, economic and environmental changes.

As I read this book, I noted the distinct haze out my window – proof of the current forest fires raging across the forested hills and mountains of Montana.  Reading about the plight of homeowners and fire fighters alike in Egan’s book, made me doubly aware of the tragedy currently happening to the west of my home.  That’s the wonder of books.  To make something more real and more alive than it would otherwise be in our disconnected world.  The Big Burn is a wonderful book – not only for the author’s well-researched and exciting narrative, but also because I will never look at conservation or forest fires in the same way.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2009
336 pages

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The Great Santini by Pat Conroy

The Great Santini

Semi-autobiographical, The Great Santini is Pat Conroy’s novel about growing up with a military-authoritarian father.  This book really packs a huge punch.  There’s so much here from abuse, racism and the many ways Ben Meecham and his siblings attempt to cope with their regimented and crazy life.  Conroy has a wonderful way of narrating a great story, complete with humor and nail-biting experiences.  He never fails to disappoint and The Great Santini is no exception.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1987
440 pages

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In A Dark Wood Wandering by Hella Haasse

In A Dark Wood Wandering

According to the Goodreads description of this book:

“This novel exemplifies historical fiction at its best; the author’s meticulous research and polished style bring the medieval world into vibrant focus. Set during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the narrative creates believable human beings from the great roll of historical figures. Here are the mad Charles VI, the brilliant Louis d’Orleans, Joan of Arc, Henry V, and, most importantly, Charles d’Orleans, whose loyalty to France brought him decades of captivity in England. A natural poet and scholar, his birth and rank thrust him into the center of intrigue and strife, and through his observant eyes readers enter fully into his colorful, dangerous times. First published in the Netherlands in 1949, this book has never been out of print there and has been reprinted 15 times.”

As a lover of historical fiction, In a Dark Wood Wandering comes as close to perfection as it gets.  Reminiscent of Sharon Kay Penman, Hella Haasse presents history with memorable characters and an engrossing story.  I loved every minute of it and was sad when I came to the last page.

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1949
592 pages

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Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game

I finally read this classic work of science fiction after recommendations by many, many people.  My thoughts?  Yes, it definitely deserves all the accolades.  It is a stripped down, young adult fiction examination of what makes humans good.

Ender Wiggin is a young boy with an aptitude that got him noticed by the military elite.  The earth had already gone through two invasions by an alien race called “buggers,” who seem bent on destroying mankind in order to take the planet for themselves.  After fending them off twice, the powers that be believe the aliens will be back to finish us off unless we make a pre-emptive strike and finish them off first.  Those military geniuses are looking for the right leader to carry out the job, and it appears Ender is that person.

There are so many value questions explored by author Orson Scott Card.  Does the fact that Ender is still a child make a difference?  They are not fully honest with Ender, who is heart a truly good-hearted boy.  While trying to turn Ender into the “perfect” leader, Colonel Graff was making him into a killer on a grand scale, and Ender was trying to preserve his identity of goodness. Even if it means saving the human race, can crossing those ethical boundaries ever be justified? I highly recommend this book.  It is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1994
324 pages

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