May was not a great month for knitting, but it was a pretty good month for reading. I finished three books, each one *very* different from the other. If you don't feel like reading my blatherings about each one, just check the titles, and know that I liked them all!
Soldier's Heart : Reading Literature Through War and Peace at West Point, by Elizabeth D. Samet. This is one I learned about through a review on one of the book blogs I read (sadly, I can't remember which one right now), and it intrigued me. The author is a woman who has no military connections or background but accepts a job teaching literature courses at the United States Military Academy at West Point. She discusses the culture shock involved in being someplace where everyone has a formal rank, where even the difference between the classes of students (meaning what year they are academically), can make a vast difference in how they are treated.
Samet began her tenure prior to September 11, 2001. She discusses how different students were then, compared to the students that came after that day. The pre-9/11 students were a generally optimistic bunch, happy to be learning and ready to take on the world in whatever way they could be of help. After 9/11, she notices students who are overall more somber, anxious to confront an enemy, and make the world understand what America has to offer them. After the stories about Abu Ghraib prison hit the news, her students become somewhat demoralized, as that is not an example of the Army they wanted to be part of - and the continuing loss of life in Afghanistan and Iraq gives some of them a pretty fatalistic outlook.
This book was really interesting to me. I will admit that I have seldom considered - as Samet points out - that even though West Point is a military college, it's still a college. The students still are usually between the ages of 17 and 19 years old when they start, and are like teenage freshman students at most other colleges. They have different interests, and - just like other students - question the need for literature classes, seeing them as something completely impractical and non-relevant to their lives. Samet talks about various students that left a particular impression on her, not all of whom turned out to be literature majors. Reading the book, I was reminded that soldiers are individuals, even though I tend to think of them as a single unit (much like the military does). This was a book that gave me a lot to think about, while also opening up an alien world in a manner that I could understand.
Lady Killer, by Lisa Scottoline. OK, you already know that I love Lisa and her books, so yes, I was somewhat predisposed to like this one. But for the first time in several years, Scottoline returns to one of my favorite heroines, Mary DiNunzio, a nice Italian girl from South Philadelphia, who is an attorney in an all-woman firm in the city. I am neither Italian, from South Philly, or an attorney (and not even all that nice, to be honest!), but Mary is a character that I completely appreciate and understand. I went to a talk/booksigning at Barnes & Noble, and Lisa Scottoline said that she loved Mary, because Mary is a kind of alter ego. She had not been able to write books for a few years where Mary was involved, because of her (Scottoline's) father's death. She said when she would sit down and try to write something about Mary, it would all just be too emotional, so she had to wait until she was really ready.
In this installment, Mary is visited by a former high school classmate, Trish Gambone, one of the most popular girls (Mary has always called her "Trash Gambone"). Trish's boyfriend has started to get involved in some business deals that make her uncomfortable, because she knows he is involved with the mob. She thinks he is getting ready to propose marriage, and fears that if she refuses to marry him, he'll kill her. She comes to Mary for help, even though she did nothing but make fun of her all the years they were in high school together.
This was an enjoyable read. The characters are both interesting, and true-to-life (well, at least I could name several of my own acquaintances they resembled), and the dialogue is fast-paced but also really funny. Mary is a sort of Everywoman, and you really want her to succeed, even while you know she doesn't seem to do anything the easy way. Most of the rest of the book details Mary's involvement in the case, particularly once Trish goes missing. I would recommend this book, as it has just enough twists to keep it interesting without getting too confusing, with some great characters thrown in for good measure.
The Undertaker's Wife, by Loren D. Estleman. I read this as one of my books for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. It was the winner of the 2006 Spur Award, an award given annually to celebrate and honor the best writing about the American West. This book fascinated me. It starts out in 1900, when Richard Connable, a retired undertaker, is called upon by several powerful men to prepare the body of a business tycoon for burial, after he dies unexpectedly on a train trip. When Richard leaves, his wife, Lucy, begins to reminisce about their lives together. She starts with their first meeting, when Lucy's brother dies, and she goes to the Richard's father's funeral parlor to make arrangements for his burial. She meets Richard at that point, and after they marry, he decides to strike out on his own, and become independent of his father.
The author manages to make you not only care about the characters, but gives you an insight and an understanding of the work of an undertaker, especially in the mid-1800s to the early part of the 20th century. From their lives in San Francisco, right around the time of the Gold Rush, to their moves to Montana, Kansas, and various other places, Estleman writes in such vivid detail that you can picture all of it in your mind. Richard and Lucy are somewhat unusual, but sympathetic characters who develop into different people than they were at the beginning of the book.
Prior to reading this, I did not really know any particulars about the work of undertakers. The book takes place at a time when the profession was beginning to gain respectability, and new methods were being tried. The character of Richard is particularly interesting in this aspect, as he is continually trying new methods, which advance both the profession as a whole, and his reputation in particular. I will admit that occasionally I was a little bit creeped out, but for the most part, it was fascinating to me.
I enjoyed this book a lot more than I expected that I would. It had, at least as far as I'm concerned, the perfect blend of story, good character development, historical context, and new information, all in one place.
See? Three really different titles, but all of them well worth the time!