Saturday, December 24, 2011

War Horse: A Novel (Review of a book now a movie)

 Note: I wrote this review for Amazon, on January 18, 2009.

"War Horse" is a story of courage and endurance by horse and man, conveyed through the destruction that is war. Told from the viewpoint of the horse, the story can draw in the most reluctant reader, as children often feel more empathy for animals than people. Because of descriptions of grueling labor and unsound working conditions for the horses, the book is best directed toward fourth grade and up.

Joey, a gorgeous bay with four white stocking legs and a white cross on his forehead, is the War Horse. Albert is his 15-year-old human who trains and loves him. When his father sells the horse to the cavalry for service in World War I, Albert swears to join when he is old enough and find Joey.

The insanity of matching a cavalry of horses and riders with sabers against soldiers with rifles and machine guns has to be one of the most insane moments in war history!! One-fourth of the horses are killed in the first battle. All but two die in the next battle this cavalry faces. Joey and his equal, Topthorn, a huge black Arabian, survive, only to be taken as prisoners by the Germans.

What Joey and Topthorn face as part of the team to pull the hospital cart to the battle front over and over is made right by kind treatment their German masters give to their wounds and injuries, and treat their fatigue at the end of day. Joey's worse experience comes when he and Topthorn and others must pull the artillery. Because these soldiers are dead tired themselves and also starving, they are not as attentive to the horses.

The most horrifying scene occurs when Joey is totally alone and runs and runs from the sound of cannons until he is trapped in No Man's Land, a barren area between the French and English on one side and the Germans on the other. Two rolls of barbed wire separate the land from the trenches. Joey finds himself in this area. What transpires is an incredible and beautiful moment in the midst of an insane war.

SPOILER ALERT! Read no further if you don't like to know anything about a book's ending.)

Of course, you must know that Albert is re-united with Joey. How that comes about is purely contrived, but welcomed by a reader weary of the horrors of war for both man and horse.

Last week a fourth-grader asked me (I'm the school librarian) for a really good book to read. I showed him several. When he saw "War Horse," he wanted it at once. The next day he told me, "This is a great book." He was already half-way finished. So I went home and read my copy.

You will never look at a horse the same way again. Joey tells us about the people who tend him. Are they heavy-handed, hard, tender, kind, caring? What is it like with each type of person? What is it like to be a horse? But the best lesson is that horses are no longer used in battle (until a reader commented that horses are being used in Afghanistan! Barbarity in a barbaric place. What can one expect? Note: I'm speaking of war and war conditions, not the Afghan people or soldiers.)

Now the film version is getting rave reviews. I look forward to seeing it!

Washingto Square: a film version

Darwinism, selective adaptation, rationalism, a stone cold universe--these are the main characters in the film adaptation of Henry James' novel "Washington Square." I wept for the futility of the motives of the players. Forlorn-ness, weariness, desperation--these are feelings Henry James (author) passed out with plenitude to both Morris and Catherine, the exquisitely needy main characters.

Catherine, an only child, who lives at Washington Square, under the strict supervision of her doctor-father, is a most emotionally deplete character at the begining. Played with utmost perfection, with downward stares, gazes from under obedient eyes, a shrinking of body in the presence of men, Jennifer Jason-Leigh lived that character. So does Chaplin as Morris with perfect beauty, necessary emotional repertoire and glib talent with tongue and ready story. He is as extraordinarily handsome as she is plain. Yet, by steady and intense tender attention, he brings out a lively Catherine no one has ever seen, least of all her domineering father.

This is a story of want meeting need, with each discovering in the other the answer to each dilemma, with one (Morris) knowing what is needed, the other (Catherine) just feeling what is wanted. They meet at an engagement party (so ripe a setting for possibility). It is amazing to watch Morris see Catherine and fall instantly in love with her. Or is it a game? Her father, the wealthy doctor, thinks so and discourages her at every turn. Personally, I watched carefully for any slippage in his facial control to detect a false face or mocking smile. But never. He seemed genuinely to care. On the other hand Catherine refuses--initially-- to accept or believe his intentions. Her father has well-trained her to believe she is stupid and plain and desired by men only for her future fortune.

At the beginning when I spoke of despair and weariness, I mentioned these in accordance with the scientific and philosophic views of the day: the cold indifference of the universe, the non-involvement of the religious with daily life, almost a cold, calculating universe in its own way.

There is in some religious circles today the belief that prayer not only changes the one prayed for, but the one doing the praying. Although an anachronism, surely the context is the same: Morris does fall in love with this poor creature he is wooing. That is my impression. Of course, she loses herself passionately.

That's all I need say about the film. For sure, it is a powerful drama that unfolds before one's eyes and, for sure, the ending is both expected and incredibly sad. Yes, how can we ever push ego into the bushes and seize the moment and take a chance? Why are we so stubborn? Can there occur a merging between these two? What would it take? Everything? Nothing? Can we go too far past a certain point? Oh, I could keep asking these questions, but the answer remains the same: It is what James made it to be. His book reflects the values not only of his day, but our day as well. The story could go differently today, but should it? Can there be too much in a relationship to return to its purer moments?

Addendum: Added in response to a reader comment:

I accept as valid the reader-response (in this case, the viewer-response) genre of criticism. The author/director presents to his/her audience a version of some form of the Truth. The viewer can accept that view as one of the Truths of the universe or not. James was presenting the idea of the possibilities available to plain, but wealthy young women. In this film there was only one, Morris wants Catherine for her money. That's it. If she didn't have money, he would never have shown interest. One particular line shows this: "I wasted two years of my youth courting you AND your money (my emphasis)"-- Just recently I heard a phrase that really stuck in my head: "I settled." Compromised, accepting less than what is truly desired. Catherine would have settled at that moment. Years later she refused to take less. Maybe I did read more into the story than what James intended (rationalism, Darwinism), but I think I can justify my declaration. Morris was willing to "settle" with plain Catherine BUT wads of money (survival of the fittest?) and she, too, with such a charming and handsome man, having decided he did love her (the Watchmaker is sitting in the heavens, so we live life as we find it, not relying on a god to intercede--or is this Ann Rand-ism/objectivism?)

My final question is: Do we take love in whatever form we find it OR do we live by moral and ethical values, for self-respect which is cold and empty. Which causes more pain? Less? The film deeply disturbed me--on a personal level, not as a random viewer-- because of its lack of acceptable alternatives, indeed as life is often lived!

How does James present Morris in the novel? Does he come to love Catherine at all or is his behavior all a game for gain? After such a film, reading the novel becomes necessary...

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Best 10 Books( I read) in 2011 (regardless of publication date)

10. Sartoris by William Faulkner or Zen Ghosts by Jon J. Muth
Why two books here? Because I could not make up my mind. A classic by a Nobel winner in literature or a thoughtful, fairly philosophical book by a children's writer? Sartoris is the first novel by Faulkner that I've read in a many, many years. See Choice #2 of my Top 10 for the reason why. Sartoris claimed my full attention with its tale of characters who represent the Old South and the rising of other classes among them.  Zen Ghosts is sheer mastery of both logic and magic, words and illustrations. It also requires attention to detail to contemplate its depth of meaningl

9. Ultimatum by Matthew Glass
A slow-paced, detail-setting first half with a hurtling-beyond-belief second half. A political agenda by a very hope-filled president who truly wants to solve problems, find solutions, especially for the eminent, ongoing climatic devastation. His plans are disrupted by one little decision that changes the course of his presidency. A fascinating read, especially the ever-developing conflict between this president and the Chinese leader, who represents a totally different way of approaching the world and his own leadership. Too late he learns why presidents have various kinds of advisors. Frankly, be prepared for a slow beginning which builds to a powerful and provocative second half and raises most disturbing issues and questions.

8. 61 Hours: A Reacher novel by Lee Child
I could have picked any of the Reacher novels, but this is one of two I read in 2011, the other being The Affair (which is not nearly as strong as 61 Hours). From page one, this novel is non-stop action, a book difficult to put down for any length of time. Reacher finds himself in North Dakota, the coldest state in a cold period. As usual he finds himself helping local law officers, the sheriff and a particular deputy, keep an important witness safe until she testifies. As usual it is one murder after the other with violent and evil characters contrasted with a couple of good people. The story takes place within 61 hours and concludes with the most puzzling ending of any Reacher novel.

7. Young Samurai: the Way of the Warrior by Chris Bradford
Since serving as a children's librarian, I have come across a number of really fine series of books written for older children. The Young Samurai series is one of the best. The story is set in feudal Japan in the late 1500's. Jack Fletcher is a monkey on his father's ship which is beset by ninja off the coast of Japan. The only survivor is Jack, who is "adopted" by the local samurai lord and is then trained in samurai school. You can begin to imagine the adventures and momentous times he has in each book of the series. I read the six in the series one after the other. The seventh and final book should be published soon.

6. Conspiracy 365: December by Gabrielle Lord
This is another of the fabulously exciting series for older children. Young Callum is told on New Year's Eve by a total stranger to run away and stay away for one full year or 365 days or he would be killed. A conspiracy is tied in with his family's name. He needs to find it and solve it before the year is up. There is not one dull page or a single false note in the story. This is a wowzer--and there are 12 books in the series, each for a month of the year that he is away from his home. Lord throws in a few red herrings along the way. Usually good at solving these riddles, I didn't this time. I suspected several of the characters as being the "villain." Of course, one of my choices was guilty.

5. Crocodile Tears (Alex Rider) by Andrew Horowitz
This is the last, until recently, novel in the Alex Rider series. Alex is forced into becoming a fifteen year old spy for jolly ol' England and the queen's service (mainly because both his dad and uncle were also spies). I almost must rate this one as my most favorite (after Paulsen's Hatchet series, which I read in 2009). Alex Rider can do anything--and it's all believable because Horowitz slips in the necessary  bits of information that prepares the reader for sometimes utterly fantastic things that happen to Alex or he causes. Another wowzer!

4. Lucky's Lady by Tami Hoag
Normally, I don't read bodice rippers--too unrealistic. Does a man really totally love a woman like those found within cover of such a book, that is. Looking for a book, I found this on my Hoag shelf and did not remember buying it or how it got there. Took it down and was hooked on the first page. No matter the genre, I want to be hooked on the first page. This is a delicious book. Here's the benefit. Imagine exactly what you want in a man, both physically and emotionally, intellectually,  professionally, and Lucky is it!! Even with a ponytail (which I do like!). This Lucky is a Cajun who lives in the South Louisiana swamp and makes his living mysteriously, at least he likes his life secret after being a POW for too long. Serena and Lucky, of course, immediately bristle up to each other, while simultaneously develop deep attractions which must be answered. The surrounding story is a worthy ecological one: save this particular swamp. Developers have it on radar to buy and build. An exciting read without unnecessary details.

3. In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke
Do you read books that--swish--go right through your brain and are forgotten minutes after reading them? Some linger and linger. "In a Perfect World" is one that lingers. It begins quite chickish and quickly becomes apocalyptic. The airline flight attendant is attracted to the handsome pilot,  who gives up others for her. However, she must be willing to take on his kids. Their relationship is fine until a pandemic strikes the world and he is confined to Europe while she is stuck with his kids--at his insistence. Meanwhile, Jiselle takes in an elderly neighbor and her own mother, with whom she has had a struggling relationship. This is a story of struggle, survival, and building community within one's own home. A profoundly affecting story!

2. William Faulkner: the Cofield Collection by Jack Cofield
I've had this book for 30 years. I actually bought it at a bookstore in Oxford, Mississippi, within hiking distance of Faulkner's home. I've looked at the photos many times over the years, but recently, I took the book out again and actually read the print. I felt I was tracking Faulkner's life from beginning to end. I thought I "knew" him, but learned so many more details of his life. He was a horseman to the end, and eventually died from injuries, the results of a fall. He courted Estelle, but she married another, who died in WWI. Faulkner pursued again, they married, then produced their beloved daughter Jill. Faulkner's story is based entirely on the photographs in the book, collected and arranged by one of his close friends.  That's how the reader knows if the truth is being told. I took my time and studied each photo. Then I got out all my Faulkner novels and stories. I stopped reading halfway through "The Sound and the Fury." When I retire, I'll finish it.

1. The Terror by Dan Hawkins
This book is a stunner! Out of a slow beginning come the details of searching, searching by explorers/adventurers, trying to find a waterway from the Atlantic to the Pacific--there, at the top of the world in the frozen Arctic. The novel is historical fiction at its very best. A friend tried to read the book and became bogged down in the details and gave up. After I read it, I insisted she try again because of the sheer imagination of the author in inserting a mythical monster into the story. At the first mention of this huge monster in the pages of a superlative explorer book, I was very disappointed. However, the last 100 pages are the most satisfying of any book I've read in a long, long time. Utterly fascinating!

A favorite souvenir

A favorite souvenir
These are my two girls from Ireland!

Judy's shared items

Books on my very ambitious TBR list (*denotes read)

  • *Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever by Mem Fox
  • The Odd Women by George Gissing
  • The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson
  • How to Get Your Child to Love Reading by Esme Raji Codell
  • The Cod Tale by Mark Kurlansky
  • In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
  • *Joan of Arc by Mark Twain
  • Dag Hammarskjold by Elizabeth Rider Montgomery
  • The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet by Rabbi Michael L. Munk
  • Children of Strangers by Lyle Saxon
  • Spiritual Writings by Flannery O'Connor
  • Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O'Connor and the Catholic Grotesque by Gilbert H. Muller
  • The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
  • Flannery O'Connor's South by Robert Coles
  • Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
  • Sylvanus Now by Donna Morrissey
  • *Vincent de Paul by Margaret Ann Hubbard
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
  • A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  • The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
  • Readicide by Kelly Gallagher
  • *Ruined by Paula Morris
  • Say You're Not One of Them by Uwem Akpan
  • Wandering Star by J.M.G. Le Clezio
  • Silence by Shusaku Endo
  • *The Assault by Harry Mulisch
  • Kari's Saga by Robert Jansson
  • *The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal
  • Western Skies by Joseph Conrad
  • *The Giver by Lois Lowery
  • *Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski

School Library Journal - NeverEndingSearch


A semester course in one book about the Soviet Union. Click on image for my review.