Book Review – Some Kind of Courage

255784084 stars. Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart is equal parts adventurous, thrilling, and touching. All that young Joseph Johnson has left of his family is his pony Sarah, and now she’s been sold to a no-count horse trader against his will. He sets off to get her back, encountering bandits, whitewater, a grizzly, and other dangers, as well as unexpected friendship and sense of belonging.

Gemeinhart’s talent is that he writes both action and emotion very well. Told in Joseph’s folksy first-person narration, the book is readable both for the theme and the plot. I tore through it fairly quickly, starting it in the evening and finishing it on lunch break the next day, excited to read both the bittersweet and the valedictory moments of Joseph’s adventure.

The only real flaw of the book is that there are some moments that feel a little “Chicken Soup for the Soul”-esque, slightly overwrought with morality and message. Neither bad nor emotionally manipulative, mind you, just a little sweetly maudlin.

I continue to be impressed with Dan Gemeinhart’s writing; he’s talented with words, characters, and story. Some Kind of Courage is one of those books that is instantly appealing. Recommended for adventure and animal lovers of all ages.

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Book Review – West with the Night

175583685 brilliant stars. Beryl Markham’s West with the Night is a gem of a memoir, engrossing and beautifully written. Born in England and raised in Kenya, she was a bush pilot in Africa in the 1930s. Her memoir follows her life through her 1936 attempt to fly solo across the Atlantic, as she grows up on her father’s farm, becomes a horse trainer, learns to fly, and embarks on her career as a pilot.

Each chapter is its own capsule tale. Topics range from her father’s farm to the lion that attacked her to discussions of the African landscape to her flying adventures. While they make for great reading individually, they gain power from the commonality. Markham is a very pleasant narrator, focusing more on the world around her than herself. She is able to take pride in her accomplishments without relating any sense of ego; the accomplishment was sufficient without needing praise.

Her personality comes through as lively, inquisitive, and adventurous. “Lived life to the fullest” is such a cliche, yet she did exactly that. Her confidence is born of hard work and practice–she earned the rich life she led!

The prose itself is a delight to read, lyrical and evocative:

“You can always rediscover an old path and wander over it, but the best you can do then is to say, ‘Ah, yes, I know this turning!’ — or remind yourself that, while you remember that unforgettable valley, the valley no longer remembers you.”

“Still, I look at my yesterdays for months past, and find them as good a lot of yesterdays as anybody might want. I sit there in the firelight and see them all.”

“Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late.”

“Why am I gazing at this campfire like a lost soul seeking a hope when all that I love is at my wingtips? Because I am curious. Because I am incorrigibly, now, a wanderer.”

A few things will jar modern sensibilities, notably the colonialism and its associated condescension and bigotry, and the casual hunting of elephants. As products of the time, they did not detract from the book for me; I found the fact that these thing stuck out to be a good thing–hopefully we’ve made a bit of progress.

West with the Night is moving, inspiring, witty, worldly, and lovely–one of those books that I was sad to turn the last page and will look forward to reading again. Beryl Markham was an incredible woman, and this perfectly-written memoir does her justice, as well as the continent, people, and things she loved.

Book Review – The Princess Bride

5 stars.  I have a feeling that I’m a rarity, because I read The Princess Bride before seeing the movie. The book is brilliant, with lovable characters, a completely satisfying plot, and plenty of wit and gentle sarcasm. Now, let me go ahead and commit the ultimate heresy for a devoted book lover:

The movie is better.

I say that for three main reasons:

1. The movie features snappier dialog and handles exposition much better than the book. In virtually all cases where the movie dialog differs from the book dialog, the movie dialog is phrased better and more succinctly. Where side stories fill in details in the text, the movie presents them naturally through conversations, conveying the necessary information more quickly (compare Inigo’s backstory as given in the book with the summary that Mandy Patinkin relays before the duel scene).

2. The actors in the movie completely embraced and understood their roles, from Andre the Giant’s perfection as Fezzik to Chris Sarandon’s “I’m swamped!” to Billy Crystal’s curmudgeonly delivery of his lines. Try reading the book without hearing the movie characters, I dare you.

3. The framework of the movie, with the grandfather reading the story of Westley and Buttercup to his grandson, avoided the smugly self-aware tone of Goldman’s fictional abridgement of S. Morgenstern’s ponderous tome to the exciting story hidden within. Within the text, in jokes and asides combine for a skewering of the pompous worlds of publishing, lawyers, and literature departments that started to get as tedious as the prose that Goldman supposedly excises.

Now, as to the book itself. I’ve read this book several times, finding new pleasure in each reading. The characters are all wonderful (with one minor exception…); I take particular delight in the relationship between Fezzik and Inigo. Westley’s panache makes him the ideal hero, and yet he’s not above being the foil for many of the lighter moments. Even Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen have so much going for them to raise them above stock bad guys; they are both very developed and interesting. The only real weakness is that Buttercup doesn’t have much going for her besides beauty; it’s not easy to see what makes Westley fall so madly in love with her.

Goldman’s writing constantly delivers twists, turns, suspense, clever resolutions, and satisfaction. The plot very rarely eases off the gas once the story gets underway. I especially appreciate that intelligence and hard work are given prime importance in how the tale goes.

The Princess Bride is a book to read over and over for the love of character and story. Highly recommended (but I still like the movie better)!

Book Review – Navigating Early

4 stars. Moon Over Manifest was a real surprise to me in my Newbery reading project. My snap judgment of it was that I was not going to like it, and it started out with a very Newbery trope plot of child separated from parents… and next thing I knew, I was emotionally invested in the story and positively adored it. Clare Vanderpool’s Navigating Early seems like a match made in heaven for me–a book about bears, the Appalachian Trail, timber rattlesnakes, math, and adventure. Now, don’t get me wrong, I really liked this book, but I was prepared to love it from the moment I opened its covers and it never quite brought me there.

The story reads like a tall tale, imbued with a mythic over-the-top quality. Jack Baker finds himself at boarding school in Maine, expected to live up to his father’s Navy career. He befriends young genius Early Auden, a strange boy who amuses himself by creating the story of Pi from its never-ending digits. After a slow beginning, they have a series of rollicking and sometimes dangerous adventures, and Jack uncovers painful truths about Early and himself along the way.

The strength of this book is Vanderpool’s many-layered plot; she deftly weaves the narratives together into a cohesive whole with aplomb and artistry. So what kept me from loving Navigating Early? I never felt the emotional connection with the characters that Moon Over Manifest inspired. A worthy read for the thoughtful yet adventurous.

Book Review – God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre

4 stars. Some travel books inspire the desire to hop on a one-way flight to the featured destination this afternoon. This is not one of those travel books! God’s Middle Finger lets me know that the Sierra Madre is nowhere I need to visit any time soon (but I was pretty darn glad Richard Grant took his trip and chose to write about it).

The beautiful mountain country of western Mexico sounds stunning, remote, and dangerous. More dangerous by far are the petty criminals, violent offenders, and territorial hodgepodge of the narcotraficantes’ turf. Life is cheap, and murder and rape are all too often commonplace. Grant starts with a harrowing account of being chased through the woods by homicidally inclined, gun toting men near Durango, hooking me right from the beginning.

Grant writes with a descriptive eye and an obvious feeling of shared humanity for even the most wretched people he encounters (well, except for the pair entertaining themselves by doing their level best to shoot him, for which I think I can forgive him). He doesn’t miss the humorous and the ludicrous either, such as picking up a hitchhiker before going into certain areas because there’s safety in numbers, or how the drug kingpins have made the Copper Canyon area very safe for tourists (because they have too much financial stake in the money laundering opportunities presented by tourism). I also had a wry smile at the tradition of “coming down to the Sierra to get away from the law, or ‘for their health’ as [they] say here.”

God’s Middle Finger can’t really be termed a “fun” book–a rogue’s gallery perhaps?–but I certainly enjoyed its edge-of-my-seat tale (from the comfort of my own house). This was an impulse purchase from the used bookstore, and it proved to be well worth the cost and the pleasurable time spent reading Richard Grant’s puckering story.