Monthly Archives: May 2013

“Man in the Blue Moon” by Michael Morris

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris is that is has its origins in a family story, a curious event that happened to the author’s grandfather.  Around the bare bones of family anecdote, Morris weaves a truly fascinating tale of love, abandonment, desperation, greed, hypocrisy, faith, murder and second chances.  In it, a very typical Southern town, during the last days of World War I and the early days of the Spanish flu epidemic, has to deal with an enormously atypical situation, one of uncanny forces beyond anything they’ve previously experienced, something well outside ordinary comprehension.

Ella Wallace’s husband, Harlan, has abandoned her and their three sons, leaving them on the verge of bankruptcy, and seemingly with only one option: to sell the land that had been in her family for generations, which she had promised her dying father not to do.  Salvation seems to arrive in the form of an ornate clock her husband had seemingly ordered before his disappearance, that could raise enough money for the mortgage payment on the land.  However, when the crate from the Blue Moon Clock Company is opened, the contents are not what anyone could have expected.

Inside the crate is a man – Lanier Stillis, a distant relative of Harlan Wallace’s, who, out of sheer desperation and with no other way to escape, had himself boxed up and shipped to family.  His arrival and the events that follow change the lives of everyone in Apalachicola, Florida.  Landing in the middle of hardship and struggle, he brings his own complications with him, as he proves ultimately unable to outrun his past.  The collision of these forces drives the plot, in intricate twists and turns that will leave the reader breathless.

Thus far, the plot closely resembles reality – a man, acquitted of murder but fleeing the vengeance of his late wife’s relatives, did indeed have himself shipped to Apalachicola as a means of escape.  From that point forward, however, it diverges sharply from the point of inspiration, diving into a fantastic world that still bears close resemblance to our own: beautifully Southern and yet wonderfully universal.  The characters are intensely vivid, and wonderfully complex, even the most minor of them.  The best and worst of human nature are on full display here, often within the same individual.  Nothing is simple, and everything is far more than it seems.

Haunting is the word that best describes the novel as a whole – or more accurately, haunted.  Every one of the main characters is shadowed by ghosts of the past, constantly nipping at their heels.  Choices and their consequences reverberate throughout the plot, set against the backdrop of a world coming apart at the seams.  Bad choices and trouble legacies abound, with everyone involved facing the same troubling questions: When everything falls down, how do you pick up the pieces and rebuild?  What happens in the aftermath of tragedy?

This image of the past haunting the present goes hand-in-hand with another theme of the book, that of redemption and recovery, of learning from the past and taking second chances whenever and wherever they appear.  If no second chance seems forthcoming, make one.  With enough effort (and a certain amount of faith and luck), it is possible to outrun the past, and reshape the future in a different fashion, that of one’s own making.

On a more personal level, Man in the Blue Moon holds a special place in my heart – its launch back in September was the first signing I attended after I began working at the Booksmith.  Not only is it an extraordinary read, it was also my introduction to the incredible world of signed books.



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Robert Edsel – “Saving Italy”

How do you fight and win a war in an art museum?

This was the question faced by the Allied forces in World War II, as they prepared for the invasion of Europe.  When a conflict devolves into total war and everything is a potential military target, how do you avoid destroying cultural treasures in the process?  How do you strike a balance between military necessity and historic preservation?

The answer was the creation of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Division, created by President Roosevelt in 1943 and empowered by General Eisenhower: a select group of men and women in the Allied armed forces, assigned the monumental task of saving what could be saved, and preserving and restoring what was damaged or destroyed.  Of course, their efforts to protect the art were in no way helped by the fact that Nazi officials were stealing most of it!

With his 2009 book, The Monuments Men, Robert Edsel told the story of this unit on the Western Front, focusing on the period between D-Day and V-E Day in northwest Europe – and is being made into a movie starring George Clooney, due out later this year.  Now he turns backwards, looking at the early days of the Monuments Men.

In many ways, his new book, Saving Italy  is the prequel to his earlier.  Orders from General Eisenhower to protect art and monuments whenever possible were not issued until six months after the start of the Sicilian campaign, but similar orders were in the hands of all officers eleven days before the Normandy invasion.  Italy was a trial run, a proving ground for these men, setting precedent and laying foundations for their later work in the rest of Europe.

Saving Italy is not just the story of the Monuments Men, although they are the stars of the show.  There were many other groups and individuals involved in the effort to protect Italy’s cultural heritage, and each is given due credit and attention: the Vatican, the Italian government, Italian partisan fighters, and even the Nazis, at least in some cases.  The sheer number of factions (whose goals often overlapped, but rarely aligned completely) throughout is mind-boggling, yet somehow Edsel manages to weave everything into a coherent, comprehensive and heart-stopping narrative, painting brief yet vivid character sketches of those involved.   Some figures are well-known: Eisenhower, Roosevelt, Churchill, Dulles, Himmler and Hitler.  Others are less familiar, but no less crucial to the success of the effort to protect some of Western Civilization’s greatest treasures.  Eisenhower’s orders placed the responsibility for protecting Italy’s cultural treasures on everyone,  from the bottom up, but the Monuments men were really the only ones with sufficient knowledge to make the job possible.

For those (like myself) who are not experts in either art or art history, he encapsulates the beauty and history of the artistic and architectural masterpieces that lay in the path of the war.   As you read, you come to truly care about whether or not these objects survive.  When they do, you celebrate; when they tragically do not, your heart breaks.

Before now, I knew the outcome of the war, at least in the broadest of strokes, being something of a WWII nut.  What I didn’t know was the fate of the art and monuments – this was an aspect of the conflict that had never occurred to me, even in light of the havoc and destruction wrought by the.  At least from my perspective, this allowed Edsel to maintain suspense throughout his narrative, even with the foregone conclusion of Allied victory.  Of course, part of the tension came from my profound ignorance of the Italian theater.  More well-informed readers may not find themselves in my shoes, and may therefore be able to finish the book with their fingernails intact.  Still, while the destruction of the war is well-known, the work of those who sought to preserve irreplaceable monuments and art is not.  It is a fascinating read, almost too unbelievable to be real.

As the cherry on top of an already marvelous cake, Robert Edsel will be speaking about Saving Italy at the Birmingham Museum of Art at 7:00 pm on June 6: D-Day, appropriately enough.  I can’t wait.  See you there!


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Apologies, Everyone!

Sorry everyone – I’m taking a bit of a break this week!  We’ve been so swamped with events (three since Friday), that I haven’t had time to review anything since my last post.  In my defense, they were some pretty amazing events.

Friday, Wayne Flynt and Kate Campbell performed their collaboration Live at the Library here at the store, and signing copies of the recording.  Professor Flynt, retired professor of history at Auburn, read selections of great Southern literature, and Kate sang her own work, inspired by those pieces.  We were packed to the rafters – absolutely overflowing!

Yesterday, we had another musical guest – Bobby Horton came and played some of his vast repertoire of Civil War tunes.  It might be trite and cliché to say that “a good time was had by all”, but that is exactly what happened.  Songs from both North and South, with the history and origins of each, told in an incredibly entertaining fashion – no surprise when you consider Mr. Horton did the score for Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War.  I loved every second of it – my parents are huge “Three on a String” fans, and it seems to have rubbed off a little.

Today, Daniel Wallace (author of Big Fish and The Watermelon King) will be here at 4 to sign his latest novel, The Kings and Queens of Roam.  He’s also being interviewed for Alabama Public Television’s Bookmark program – in fact, he’s upstairs filming it right now.  Shh … quiet on the set!

In addition to all of that, we’re also gearing up for our big event on June 16, when Khaled Hosseini will be in Birmingham, speaking at the Downtown Sheraton.  Whenever we get a spare moment around here, that’s what we’re working on.

I promise, I’ll be back next week, with a real review this time!


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Karen Abbott – “American Rose”

I love historical fiction – which may explain why I enjoyed the Broadway musical Gypsy so much.  For it is fiction, no matter how well the title character rewrote, concealed and fabricated her own past.  There is a very good reason why the play is subtitled “A Musical Fable“.  Gypsy Rose Lee used it as a vehicle to revise her past: her childhood as she wished it had happened, or at the very least, exaggerated, softened, glamorized and simplified to make a better story.  The bare bones of truth are there, all right, but shrouded in mythology, nostalgia … and Sondheim.  The truth is just as complex, but far less flattering to everyone.

In American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee, Karen Abbott does a superb job of peeling away the layers and exposing the real Gypsy, at least as far as possible.  The woman behind the façade was intensely private, and unbelievably complex – how could she not be, with her personal history?  In many instances, it’s impossible to fully understand Gypsy, her actions and motivations, but Abbott manages, teasing out every nuance from her subject’s personal papers, while at the same time acknowledging the limits of her research.  It certainly helps that she was lucky enough to access two sources available to few other biographers: Erik Preminger, Gypsy’s son, and actress June Havoc, Gypsy’s sister.

Gypsy’s own attitude towards history (heavily influenced by her mother) was of necessity fluid, which is reflected in the book.  She stole, discarded and invented at will (highlighted in her titular musical).  As Abbott points out, her one and only talent was becoming whatever America wanted or needed, and she had absolutely no scruples about using every tool that came to hand to achieve her goals.  Her audience knew only what she wanted them to know, and it’s doubtful that even those closest to her fully understood her.

Abbott successfully juggles three distinct narratives, rotating between them (in alternating chapters) and blurring the boundaries as the need arises.  With the first chapter, the curtain opens on Gypsy in 1940, performing at New York World’s Fair, at the height of her popularity – drawing bigger crowds than even President Roosevelt.  “At age twenty-nine, she stands precisely and precariously, on her own personal midway, cluttered with roaring secrets from her past and muted fears for her future, an equal number of years ahead in her life as behind (Abbott, p. 5).” From here, the latter half of Gypsy’s life unfolds, culminating with her death in 1970.  This is approximately the point where the musical ends, and shows what happens after Gypsy became a star – a tale just as fascinating as the story of how she got there.

With the second chapter, the timeline jumps back to the early 1910s (precise date unknown, thanks to Mama Rose’s penchant for forging birth certificates) with the birth of Gypsy’s younger sister, Ellen June.  This event sets the stage for the complex relationship between the two girls and their mother: Rose gives baby June the name originally belonging to her elder daughter – subsequently renamed Rose Louise (Louise for short).  The three women would dance a truly bizarre pas de trois, an endlessly alternating cycle of attraction and repulsion, never fully independent of one another.  Every gory detail of Gypsy’s family history, her childhood in vaudeville and her eventual entry into burlesque is exposed, sparing no one and nothing.  Abbott deconstructs the early part of her life, demythologizing it and showing the truth behind the musical.  The upward trajectory of Gypsy’s career eventually culminates with the 1940 World’s Fair, circling back to where the book began.

In between the rise and decline of Gypsy as an individual, Abbott also chronicles the development of burlesque, the medium that made her what she was.  We learn the history of the Minsky family, the history of New York during Gypsy’s lifetime, and most importantly, the history of burlesque.  It’s indicative that the subtitle of the book is “A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee” (italics mine).  Gypsy is nothing without context; she could not exist in a vacuum.  It’s doubtful that she could have flourished at any other point in history – she was shaped by her era as much as she shaped it.

The constant shifts in date and place can be a bit confusing at times, but it’s well worth the roller coaster ride.  Within Gypsy’s life, past and present were so inextricably linked that a purely linear narrative would be meaningless.  By moving back and forth, the reader is constantly grounded, reminded of where Gypsy came from, and its impact on where she is going.  Abbott’s incredible prose carries you along, effortlessly transitioning from one story line to the next.  The narrative simply flows, painting vivid images of impossibly complicated characters (who practically leap off the page) and some of the most turbulent times in US history.  Throughout the book, it’s highly entertaining to see the origins of every component of the musical: what was real, what was invention, and what was … creative interpretation.  Of course, in this instance, the truth was very often considerably stranger than any fiction could possibly be.

Did I mention that Karen Abbott signed our copies, Sinfully Yours?



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Daniel Silva – “The Fallen Angel”

I read Daniel Silva’s The Fallen Angel (the latest in his Gabriel Allon series, at least until The English Girl comes out on July 16) without reading any of the previous installments in the saga – of which there are eleven.  Not my usual modus operandi.  It was sitting there on the shelf, staring me in the face, and the jacket blurb was tantalizing, so one day, I finally decided, “The heck with it”.


Still, whoops.  Big problem, right?  There’s a lot of back story in eleven volumes, and there’s no way you can really enjoy the book without knowing what came first.


Incredibly, enough, no.  The story is fascinating in its own right, even lacking all previous context, and I enjoyed every second of it.


For the neophyte, Silva strikes an incredible balance between catching new readers up to speed and not talking down to veterans.  We get snippets of information, just enough for context, but not enough to (really) spoil the other novels.  For the most part, spoilers are limited to “Character X does not die” – although, considering how often the characters court or face death, that’s actually a pretty big spoiler.  The terse back story is enough to clue readers in, without slowing down the plot.  Despite being part of a much larger universe, it stands alone.


The series revolves around Gabriel Allon, an Israeli intelligence operative who also works as a renowned art restorer – although the latter seems to be his true passion, it usually ends up taking a backseat to the former.  As this installment opens, he is restoring a Caravaggio for the Vatican when the body of a young woman is found in the middle of St. Peter’s Basilica.  Allon is asked to investigate secretly by the Pope’s private secretary, and in the process unlocks a Pandora’s box of conspiracies that go far beyond the single murder.


The plot is insanely complex (in the best possible way), layers within layers, hopping from Rome to Jerusalem to St. Moritz to DC to Berlin to Vienna and back again.  Art and espionage, past and present, history and invention, fact and fiction collide in a highly satisfying, exquisitely crafted mix.  With other novels of this type, I sometimes get lost, or find myself blindsided by the twists and turns of the plot, forced to re-read passages multiple times to figure out what on earth just happened.  Not so here – Silva is easy to follow, while never once condescending, or making me feel stupid.  I truly hate plot developments that come out of absolutely nowhere, jumping from Point A to Point C without even a token stop at Point B.  Surprises are great, but they need to make sense.  Here, they do.  Everything fits together perfectly.


A brief caveat for some readers: this novel is intensely pro-Israel – which should be no surprise, considering the protagonist’s occupation, nationality and allegiances.  The characters make no excuses for the lengths their country goes to in the course of ensuring its own survival.  They may deplore the necessity of the tactics involved, but they never once doubt that said tactics are justified.  I’m throwing this information out there as a “heads-up”, but frankly, the author’s political stance had absolutely no impact on my enjoyment of the novel whatsoever; it was a matter of supreme indifference to me.


I’m apolitical when it comes to the Middle East, a stance born of ignorance.  I don’t know enough about the history of the region to feel comfortable articulating any kind of opinion on the topic, so I won’t – last week was my soapbox week.  Right or wrong, this particular aspect of the book wasn’t something I paid a great deal of attention to.  It neither added or detracted anything from my enjoyment of the plot; I viewed it as an exciting, heart-stopping thriller, nothing more.  Other readers may disagree, but I see it as an incredible read, regardless of one’s own political agenda.


Essentially, it’s a terrific read, with lots of dark humor, and deadpan snarkers everywhere – even if you don’t do your homework first.



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