Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Lotus Eaters

by Tatjana Soli

Two superb debut novels about the Vietnam War were published earlier this year.  The first, Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, definitely deserves the wide readership that made it a New York Times bestseller and a library top-circulator. (As I write this, I see that there are 241 holds on 30 copies at the Seattle Public Library; 53 holds on 73 copies at the Cuyahoga County Library System; and 232 holds on 57 copies at the King County Library System, so those readers have a terrific reading experience in store.) 

The other— far less well known, with lower sales numbers, and many fewer copies and fewer holds at libraries around the country— is Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters (St. Martin’s, 2010).  And that’s a shame, because this is—not to mince words—a devastatingly awesome novel.  It’s one of those books that I didn’t want to put down—I resented everything else that I needed to do in my life, because I didn’t want to stop reading it.  In Greek mythology, the lotus-eaters were so addicted to the narcotic properties of the lotus plant that they were unable to live in the real world.  The irony of Soli’s title is that what her characters become addicted to is the antithesis of narcotic bliss and lethargy, lassitude and dreaminess: it’s not sloth, a dream life, or being stoned that they crave, but rather the frightening narcotic of war and its attendant dangers.  Without it coursing through their blood, the main characters in Soli’s novel are pretty much unable to function.  The novel opens on a scene of chaos:  the end (for the U.S.) of the Vietnam war in 1975, marked by American soldiers in helicopters departing Saigon from the roof of the American embassy, and thousands of South Vietnamese trying desperately to get aboard the choppers before Ho Chi Minh’s troops take over the city and the country. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, and her lover Linh, a Vietnamese photographer, are in that group trying to get back to the U.S.  Through a long flashback, Soli describes the previous decade, which includes Helen coming to Vietnam to discover the circumstances of her brother’s death in the country, meeting Sam Darrow, the best known photojournalist of his day and his assistant, Linh, and her initial bewilderment at Darrow’s attitude toward his job before she herself becomes hooked on danger and fear’s adrenaline high.  This is not a novel about politics, and it doesn’t attempt to be a history of the war.  Instead, it’s about people caught up in events much larger than themselves who change in unpredictable ways.


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Under Heaven

by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven (Roc, 2010) is, in a word, superb.  Like many of his earlier novels (including The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Last Light of the Sun, Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors), this is historical fiction at its absolute best. It’s gorgeously written and, though thoroughly researched, wears its scholarship lightly. Under Heaven is set during the 8th century Tang Dynasty, one of the most dynamic in China’s history (although in the novel the country is called Kitai).  Shen Tai, the son of a general who’d led the Kitai armed forces in its last, devastating war two decades before, decides that he is going to spend the requisite two years of mourning his father’s recent death by journeying to the distant battle site and burying the dead from both sides of the battle, all the while living among the still suffering ghosts of the unburied.  As a result of this seemingly simple decision to honor his father in a non-traditional way, Shen Tai’s life is forever altered in ways that couldn’t be foreseen.  Here, the turn into fantasy is barely noticeable, because it makes perfect sense in the cultural context, and is both poignant and beautifully described.  For me, though, the best aspects of Kay’s novels are always his characters, who are utterly human (and therefore somewhat flawed, with difficult and complicated lives), sympathetic, and amazingly real.  They don’t always get want they want, or at least not in the way they would wish for. Kay’s endings are really never completely happy—his characters are always marked in some manner by the experiences they’ve undergone; they always pay a price for the choices they make.  It’s a shame this book will be shelved in the fantasy and science-fiction section of bookstores and libraries, because that inevitably makes it highly unlikely that fans of historical fiction will find it on their own.  (That’s a good example of one of the many reasons that I dislike our reliance on genre divisions in describing fiction).  Kay is a best seller in his native Canada, and one of my life’s missions is to have him be just as popular with readers here in the U.S., too.  You can watch an interview I did with him in 2007 at:


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Skating Shoes

by Noel Streatfeild

I have a new friend—she’s nine years old and her name is Sydney Armstrong.  She loves to read (of course—how could I ever have a friend who didn’t love to read?).  She told me (and her teacher) that she sometimes hid the books she was reading inside her math book!  I used to do the same thing when I was nine (and ten and eleven and so on).  We discovered that we loved many of the same books, and we’re planning to get together to discuss a book that we’re both reading: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.  I’m looking forward to it.  I asked Sydney if she’d like to do a blog post about one of her favorite books, and she agreed.  Here’s what she wrote:

Guest Blog
by Sydney Armstrong

Noel Streatfeild wrote many “shoes” books, like Circus Shoes, Party Shoes, Theatre Shoes, and Movie Shoes.  One of the best books that she wrote was Skating Shoes.  It is a very touching friendship story.  Harriet Johnson is told to start skating by her doctor, after a long illness from influenza.  At the rink she is taught by Lalla Moore, the spoiled orphan being brought up as a skating champion by her rich Aunt Claudia.  Eventually, the two girls form a close relationship; and best of all, Aunt Claudia pays for skating lessons for Harriet with Lalla.  But, as the girls grow older, Lalla’s everlasting interest in skating stops, and Harriet begins to realize her talent. 

The friendship between the two is a bit hard to understand, for Lalla has a habit of acting spoiled and selfish.  But I think the reason is because they both understand each other, and are always there for each other.  Definitely, a book that you must read!


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World Cup Fever

The 2010 World Cup (the international soccer tournament, spanning an entire month, held once every four years) is now over. New librarian and soon-to-be world traveler Andrea Gough describes herself as ‘the obsessive kind of fan who fills out competitive brackets, tapes a broadcast schedule to the fridge, and rambles endlessly about the game to anyone who will listen.” Not surprisingly (and happily for us), she has more to say:

Guest Blog
by Andrea Gough

During this year’s World Cup soccer tournament, I spent a fair amount of time wondering how to convey the joy of the game to those who didn’t watch the contests.  I also found myself anticipating how sad I would be when the tournament was over (answer:  very sad, and also—very bored). I hope the following suggestions might provide entry into the sport for novices, and sate fellow fanatics looking for something to fill game-less days to come.

This 2010 World Cup Tournament, held in stadiums throughout South Africa, is the first ever to take place on the African continent. More Than Just a Game: Soccer vs. Apartheid, by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close, is an excellent way to place the tournament in the larger context of South Africa. Not just a sports story, this weaves in the history of apartheid in South Africa through the story of 1960s political prisoners on Robben Island, and their fight and success in forming a multi-team soccer league.

In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby—perhaps best known for his novels, High Fidelity and About a Boy, and their movie adaptations—here turns his witty eye inward as he chronicles his life through soccer games. Dedicated to the English football club Arsenal through the ups and the downs, Hornby is an articulate and amusing guide to obsessive fandom.

In How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer widens the lens to examine the relation of soccer to national identity and internal politics, using an analysis of soccer’s role in various cultures as a way of probing the reach of globalization. Incorporating history and interviews on inter-team rivalries and league organization, Foer discusses issues of globalization such as trade and the exportation of Western culture.

The United States may not reign supreme in world soccer, but in many ways it is a very American sport. Two books that look at soccer teams as a microcosm of American society are The Boys From Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream, by Steve Wilson, and Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference, by Warren St. John. In The Boys from Little Mexico, Wilson follows the players on an all-Hispanic boys’ soccer team in Oregon as they prepare for their twentieth straight playoff season against teams from the wealthy white suburban schools around them. Outcasts United tells a parallel tale, that of a small Southern town home to an influx of refugees from all over the world, the three soccer teams composed of refugee boys, and their American-educated, female Jordanian coach. Both books combine excellent sports writing with sociological insights, global and local politics, and stories of determination and a continuing eye on the American Dream.


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Don’t Be Afraid of the Passive Voice

I love books about punctuation and usage—Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed are two of my favorite books, along with the new edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (winsomely illustrated by Maira Kalman).  Plus, the only instance of my ever doubting I was going to be a librarian had to do with falling in love with transformational grammar.  So I was very happy to hear from Janet Byron Anderson and read her blog entry on the passive voice.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Guest Blog
by Janet Byron Anderson PhD

On the Sunday before Senator Robert Byrd (Democrat, West Virginia) died, I was visiting a family whose daughter (I’ll call her Kim), an only child, had begun her summer of independent study and intermittent leisure. She’d just completed 9th grade and was looking forward to 10th grade—and especially to her new English teacher, who, she hoped, would not deduct 10 points for every instance of the passive voice on a student’s paper. Although many teachers and coaches frown upon use of the passive voice, the teacher’s grading horrified me.

However, I didn’t want to condemn the teacher, and thus unwittingly encourage Kim to disrespect teachers, so I simply explained that I would’ve graded differently. I speculated on the teacher’s motive. “She was probably worried,” I said, “that you wouldn’t learn how to be specific about who or what did the action—a discipline that the active voice forces upon you.” Nevertheless, I had two concerns. First, I feared that this child, the dutiful daughter of Chinese immigrants (both MDs), would obediently develop passive-voice-phobia whenever she sat at her computer to write an essay. My second fear was deeper:  Kim is fascinated with U.S. history, government, and law. In fact, she’s already set her sights on Harvard Law School. No student aiming so high can afford to leave behind a sturdy knowledge of the strengths of the passive voice. Therefore, using examples, I explained to Kim what these were, and she took notes.

The next day, Monday June 28th, the world received the sad news that Senator Robert Byrd had died. He’d been the longest-serving Congressman in U.S. history. Like every public figure, he had ideological foes and friends. But no one doubted his eloquence and skill as a communicator. Almost immediately after the announcement of his death, cyberspace buzzed with remembrances of Senator Byrd’s prescient views on what he was convinced was a dangerous step by then-President George W. Bush to invade Iraq.  Two of the Senator’s most powerful speeches, delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate, were resurrected and made the rounds: “Reckless Administration May Reap Disastrous Consequences” (12 February 2003) and “Arrogance of Power: Today, I Weep for My  Country” (19 March 2003). Knowing Kim’s interest in U.S. history, I emailed copies of these speeches to her, along with comments about Senator Byrd’s significance as a power in the Senate. I also gave her homework: Identify all instances in which the Senator used the passive voice in the two speeches, and explain as best she could how these passives, in context, supported the Senator’s message and intent. I told her she wouldn’t find many passives, because like every native speaker, Senator Byrd used the active voice more often than he used the passive. However, he unsheathed the passive for precision work that the humdrum active is incapable of doing.

* * * *

Let’s look at a couple of the Senator’s passives. Two examples are sufficient, for even a single instance of a powerful passive makes an impression that you’ll never forget. First a word about the active voice, from which the passive is derived. The typical active-voice sentence places the agent (doer, actor) of the action early in the sentence, as the subject of a transitive verb; while the person or thing upon which the action falls (i.e. the direct object) is placed after the verb:

Our uncertainty paralyzes us. (My example, adapted from a sentence you’ll soon see.)

Here the emphasis lies upon the paralyzing agent, “our uncertainty,” while the recipients, “us”/we, stand in the background. As the listener (for written text, the reader), your attention is drawn to this uncertainty and you might wonder what uncertainty the speaker/writer had in mind. The vessels (recipients) of the uncertainty, “us”/we, are not foremost in thought. Now if the speaker/writer intended to cast the relationship between agent and recipient in precisely this light, then the active voice is preferable to the passive. But what if the speaker/writer wished to express a different relationship, and thus a different emphasis? He would have to shuffle the constituents: Switch the direct object to initial position, the subject to end position (introduced with “by”), and introduce a form of “to be” as an auxiliary of the past participle of the verb “to paralyze.” Now you have a sentence in the passive voice.

Senator Byrd declaimed upon paralyzing uncertainty on 12 February 2003 on the floor of the Senate, where he castigated his colleagues for rubber-stamping President Bush’s rush to war in Iraq (passives italicized for ease of recognition):

“We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events.”

 The Senator wanted to stir sorrow and guilt within the hearts of the recipients, the “we,” the members of the Senate, among whom, as the Senator earlier bemoaned in the same speech, there was “no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war.” Use of the passive voice fixes thought upon “we” Senators, and the past participles “paralyzed” and “stunned” carry the force of adjectives, describing the sorry state we Senators are in. No active voice in the history of language could pull this off! However, the active voice wasn’t idle: It set the stage for these passives in the initial clause, “We stand passively mute….” Beautiful semantic coherence informs the whole sentence in the words “passively mute,” “paralyzed,” and “stunned.” What is the sum of these three expressions? Half-alive. We Senators are semi-comatose in a situation that calls for intellectual vitality and courageous resistance.

As President Bush pushed the nation further into war in Iraq, Senator Byrd watched the inexorable move with dismay. He returned to the issue in another speech on the floor of the Senate on 19 March 2003. He began this speech on a personal note: “I believe in this beautiful country.” He noted his devoted study of the country’s history and “the wisdom of its magnificent Constitution.” It’s been reported that the Senator attended law school at night while he served in Congress. It took him 10 years to graduate. He always carried a copy of the Constitution in his pocket. He knew that most people around the world shared his admiration for the United States. But the Iraq adventure changed that:

 “Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.

In these two passives the agent is deleted: Who disputes our word? Who questions our intentions? We can discern an implied agent in the beginning of the sentence: “our friends” around the globe. However, the passives without an explicit agent draw attention away from these friends, redirecting it toward “our word” and “our intentions.” Now, a person’s—or nation’s—word and intentions are defining features of character; therefore, any change in word or intention elicits a shift in our view of them. In Senator Byrd’s sentence the past participles “disputed” and “questioned” carry the force of adjectives, characterizing America’s “word” and “intentions” as now suspect because of the pre-emptive war in Iraq. Restructuring the two clauses into the active voice would shift attention away from our word and our intentions and redirect it to “our friends.” But the war has caused our friends to drift away!


 I’ll see Kim next Sunday, and we’ll review her homework.

References and Further Reading

Byrd, Robert. “Reckless Administration May Reap Disastrous Consequences”. Speech delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate, 12 February 2003. Accessed 29 June 2010 at

Byrd, Robert. “Arrogance of Power: Today, I Weep for My Country”. Speech delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate, 19 March 2003. Accessed 29 June 2010 at

Clymer, Adam. “Robert C. Byrd, a Pillar of the Senate, Dies at 92.” The New York Times, 28 June 2010. Online at


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The Good Son

by Michael Gruber

The Good Son, by Michael Gruber (Holt, 2010), is one of those few and far between complex, intelligent, and insightful thrillers.  The main character, Theo Bailey, is a Special Operations soldier who decides to take a more-or-less unauthorized leave from the Army to locate his mother, Jungian psychotherapist Sonia Bailey Laghari, who’s disappeared near Kashmir.  Sonia, who’d become a practicing Muslim when she married a Pakistani, was in South Asia to convene a symposium on “Conflict Resolution on the Subcontinent: A Therapeutic Approach” with a group of fellow pacifists.  Ironically— given the title of the symposium—she and her fellow participants, who include an American billionaire, a Jesuit priest, and a Quaker couple, are kidnapped by terrorists, who may or may not have nuclear weapons at their disposal. Unless Theo can figure out what’s going on and how to foil the terrorists’ plans, his mother is doomed. At worst, the terrorists will use the nuclear devices; at best, Sonia and the rest will die by beheading.   Because you’re immediately sucked into the intricate and page-turning plot, this is a good novel for a long plane flight; but readers who are looking for a thriller with a strong philosophical subtext—the sort of novel that makes you think about families, loyalty, religion, and politics—will find just what they’re looking for in Gruber’s finest novel to date.


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