Review by Proprietor Ed Caylor
A friend recently encouraged me to give Mona Passage a try. I was hesitant because I thought the book might be a CSI tale, or a shoot ‘em up military thriller. Still, based on the encouragement, I sat down to read the book in front of a warm fireplace on a cold and cloudy Portsmouth evening. I couldn’t stop until it was way past bedtime. I was one-third of the way through. The next evening, I finished Mona Passage…way past bedtime. It’s very rare that I enjoy a book so much that I will finish it in two sittings. If Mr. Bardenwerper writes another book, I’ll be in line to purchase it.
The novel begins with a bang, as a desperate family attempts to escape from Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The escape is partially successful. Things then slow down to a slow boil as characters are introduced and developed. The most important new character is a young Coast Guard officer who is assigned as the Executive Office to a small cutter, based in Puerto Rico.
The young Coast Guard officer has as much weight to carry with his own family’s problems as the head of the family that managed to (partially) escape Cuba has with his. The paths of the two men cross early in the book. The depth of their unexpected entanglements increases right up to the last few pages.
By the halfway point, all the people and families begin to intertwine like ivy on a wall. Yet the author never makes things so complex that you lose interest in the path the novel is taking. I don’t want to go into the overall plot that can be easily found on-line. No character is perfect, they all have their flaws, but all those flaws make the novel much more believable.
The book is superb at gaining the reader’s attention to the horrendous living conditions in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. You can easily understand why refugees would risk their lives to escape. At the same time, the members of the Coast Guard have sworn to obey lawful orders and they must intercept and return those trying to escape. Deep moral choices come into play as the novel hurtles towards its climax.
I spent ten years in the Navy, six years as a pilot, with some of that time trying to track down and assist boat people escaping from Viet Nam. Over three summers, I was often on the bridge of several Navy ships. The military side of Mona Passage feels completely accurate to me.
On Thursday, June 9th, join us as author Thomas Bardenwerper will discuss Mona Passage at 5:30 p.m. in the Sawtelle Reading Room. For more information, click on the button below.
Proprietors and Subscribers, if you have read a book recently from the Athenaeum catalog, we would love to share your review. Contact Librarian Robin Silva for more information, firstname.lastname@example.org.
More Book Reviews by Members & Staff
The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles
Review by Research Librarian Katy Sternberger
For readers interested in World War II, human relationships, and library history, The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles is a thought-provoking new addition to the historical fiction genre. This is a good read for those who enjoy character-driven novels. Although the plot is rather predictable and flat despite the heavy nature of the topic, the narrators’ internal struggles are intriguing as they deal with loss, jealousy, and finally coming into one’s own.
Taking place largely at the American Library in Paris, the novel follows the 1939–1944 story of a young Parisian librarian, Odile, interspersed with the 1980s story of teenager Lily in Montana. As Odile and her colleagues send books to soldiers and defiantly make deliveries to Jewish members of the library during the German occupation of Paris, Lily becomes intrigued by her enigmatic next-door neighbor and the French language.
However, the real star of the book is the American Library in Paris. The author based her characters on the librarians who worked there during World War II, using archives from the American Library Association to imagine the uncertainty and change brought about by war. She includes the text of actual “crow letters,” which betrayed Jews and those who associated with them. Charles celebrates access to books and knowledge.
The novel highlights the significance of librarians and how they serve the community, even in crisis. The American Library in Paris was founded in 1920 with the motto, Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux, “After the darkness of war, the light of books.” Now in a pandemic, as then in war, books reflect society, preserve our culture, and see us through difficult times.
Why Fish Don’t exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller
Review by Librarian Robin Silva
A book rarely surprises me, but this one did, delightfully. Why Fish Don’t exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller is not quite a biography, author memoir, science book, or self-help book, but a little bit of all of them and more. Well written, thoughtful, and thoroughly researched.
Seemingly this is a biography of David Starr Jordan, an accomplished scientist who discovered and named nearly a fifth of the worlds’ fish and who suffers numerous personal losses as well as the loss of his life’s work in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Miller then searches to find that magic key, a special personality trait that motivates Jordan to take the losses in stride and continue to seamlessly move on with his life when the author herself feels such hopelessness in light of her own losses. But all is not as it appears as the story takes a on a different light confounding both author and reader. Our intrepid author will finally make sense of her findings, and her conclusions illuminate an otherwise dark tunnel, mirroring how many of us might feel in isolation during the COVID pandemic.
In Pursuit of History by the Dietrich American Foundation
Review by Proprietor Gerald W. R. Ward
For more than fifty years, the Dietrich American Foundation of Pennsylvania has played an important role in the world of early American art and material culture. Established in 1963 by H. Richard Dietrich Jr., the collection now contains some 2,385 outstanding examples of early American furniture, silver, paintings, Chinese export porcelain, books, manuscripts, and maps, as well as specialized holdings of Pennsylvania German folk art and objects associated with whaling. This catalogue covering the collection was prepared by ten outstanding scholars under the direction of Deborah Rebuck, the foundation’s curator, and H. Richard Dietrich III, the collector’s son. Over the years, the Foundation generously has placed objects from its collection on loan to more than one hundred museums and institutions, and they continue this practice.
Although the catalogue contains many outstanding objects and documents, the majority are related to the Middle Colonies, especially Pennsylvania. One important exception of intensely local interest is a rare dressing table of ca. 1735-45 signed by Joseph Davis of Portsmouth (cat. 2.5, pp. 110-11). It is a companion piece to a high chest now in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the United States Department of State. Although this dressing table has been published before, here we see it in a full-page color photograph taken by noted photographer Gavin Ashworth.
Richard Dietrich Jr. inherited his father’s interest in the Luden’s candy and cough drop business. Over time, he expanded his business enterprises to the point where he could afford to indulge his passion for collecting on a grand scale, a process discussed in detail here. He did so with sensitivity and taste, expanding his initial interest in acquiring historical documents into a more wide-ranging appetite for works of high aesthetic quality. This major catalogue tells both Mr. Dietrich’s personal story as well as chronicling the objects he acquired to share with the nation.
Richard Dietrich III and Deborah M. Rebuck, eds. In Pursuit of History: A Lifetime Collecting Colonial American Art and Artifacts. Philadelphia: Dietrich American Foundation in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019. 303 pp.; 215 color illus., timeline. Distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout features the return of her prickly character Olive Kittredge from the small town of Crosby, Maine. And we, the reader, are so grateful to Strout and so ready to revisit the many villagers she encounters. It is a bitter-sweet journey, particularly this time round, as Olive moves into her 70s and 80s and observes and endures the many trials of growing old. Her life and that of those she meets provoke such keen observations, we can only nod with her in agreement.
Strout is a master of character established through gesture, expression and dialogue and in Olive’s dealing with the indignities and frustrations of old age, she has created her masterpiece. Olive is, if nothing else, honest. She speaks the truth, but her honesty is often cutting and lacking in empathy. In this new volume, the wisdom and balance that comes with age, allows her to observe and comment upon others as well as to reflect upon herself, in acerbic, but accurate ways. Sitting in the coffee shop, she muses:
When you get old, you become invisible. It’s just the truth. And yet it’s freeing in a way. You go through life and you think you are something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something, and then you see that you are no longer anything. To a waitress with a huge hind end you’ve become invisible. And it’s freeing.
When you fall as an “older” person, you go down like a felled tree. It takes time for your brain to compute “I am falling” as you simultaneously crash to the ground. And if, like Olive, there is no one around to hear your cries, you struggle to raise yourself but just can’t (“get up you damned fool”), you crawl to whatever is there that can be used as leverage. For Olive, it is that outdoor spigot that her late husband reluctantly installed at her request (he thought it foolish) which helps Olive get back into the house. And then into an assisted living facility, a difficult thing for this proud woman to accept.
I could visit Olive again and again. As we leave her writing down memories on an old typewriter, we wonder, could there be another book coming?
The Road Not Taken by Max Boot
This is a must read for all who were physically or emotionally involved in the period from the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. Ed Lansdale was a true visionary and American patriot who was continuously humbled and ignored. Too bad he isn’t alive to advise our current leaders!
The Lost Gutenberg by Margaret Leslie Davis
I would highly recommend this book. It traces the adventures of one of the 45 known copies of the Gutenberg Bible. It gives an account of the fortunes and misfortunes of the sometimes obsessive owners of the bible, culminating with the Dohenneys, of Teapot Dome notoriety. Along the way, there is much information about the development of the printing process.
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
This historical fiction book set in colonial New York dazzles the reader with a roller coaster plot, vivid language and authentic settings. The main character, the handsome, but mysterious young man named Mr. Smith steps off an English ship and proceeds to the office of the preeminent shipping company, where he presents a bill of credit for one thousand pounds, a fortune which the company is loath to pay. Stalling for time, they insist on waiting for confirmation from England. Meanwhile the local business community consisting of established Dutch traders and the more recent English gentry trieto ferret out this man’s motivations. What are Mr. Smith’s intentions? The author employs colorful metaphors, Dutch phrases, sensory language and cultural details to create cinematic effects which captivate and mystify. For Mr. Smith is not who he seems and before this tale ends we will discover that the narrator has a point of view we don’t expect.