His time has (finally) come?

Millard Fillmore!There’s something in the air this President’s Day. Call it Millard Fillmania. You’ve probably all seen the recent car commercial offering a soap-on-a-rope effigy of the forgotten statesman touted to be the first to take a bath in the White House. (This oft-repeated “fact” was actually a sly hoax perpetrated by H.L. Mencken, by the way). Then there’s John Blumenthal’s oddball romance, Millard Filmore, Mon Amour, which tells of a deeply neurotic millionaire working on a massive biography of the man. In addition to being a close runner-up among eye-catching presidential titles to Lydia Millet’s George Bush: Dark Prince of Love, it surely has one of the most improbable subject headings in history: Fillmore, Millard, 1800-1874 — Influence — Fiction. But the real tipping point for the Millard Fillmore revival has to be George Pendle’s delightfully daft The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President. Taking Mencken’s antic impulse and running with it, Pendle brings forth little-known aspects of our nation’s 13th president, such as his piratical origins, his minstrel show days, his curious disguise during the battle for the Alamo, and his invention of the T-Shirt, all culled from Fillmore’s recently rediscovered “napkin doodles.” Not since Forrest Gump has one man done so much for an ungrateful world.  And surely it isn’t just my being a librarian that has me in stitches over the index, with its helpful entries for “Clothes – eating of, 7-8. -refusal to wear, 14. Commas 1-243. Conclusions – jumped to, 34. – leapt to, 189.” etc.  No worries: the library still has plenty of real books about Millard for kids doing reports on him. And those presidential napkin doodles? We have those, too.

A quick update for President’s Day: Fillmore Fever continues to sweep the nation. Check out this cool Waiting-for-Guffmanesque Millard Fillmore Musical, The Accidental President, on Youtube, including such numbers as No One Will Remember Me, How Lonesome This World Is, Out There, and my personal favorite, It Has to Have a Window Seat!

The War in fiction, part 1: Europe

beardless.jpgA War is not one story, but many.

Here is the first of three lists of fiction that views the war through many eyes, reflecting the diverse experiences of civilians and soldiers around the world whose lives were drawn into the Second World War.

  • Articles of War by Nick Arvin. Sent to Normandy in 1944, Iowa farm boy George ‘Heck’ Tilson’s all-too-human response to the war’s perilous chaos – to run away – will lead him through the fire towards an unforeseen and terrible duty.
  • Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris. Now sixty and a widow, Framboise Dartigen returns to her childhood village in France, to uncover painful secrets in her family’s past, and her mother’s curious relationship with the town’s German occupiers.
  • The Stalin Front by Gert Ledig. Eastern front veteran Ledig fully conveys the nightmarish enormity of total war in this gut-wrenching novel of the hell unleashed on earth when Hitler Continue reading “The War in fiction, part 1: Europe”

Big Sky best bet

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson.

Montana 1948We librarians have certain prized-yet-little-known titles that we return to again and again when suggesting books to readers. Over the years I have recommended Montana, 1948 so many times to readers that I felt the need to go back and give it another read, just to make sure I still knew what I was talking about. I do. The novella is that perfect example of suspenseful mainstream fiction, making it the perfect prescription for literary readers feeling a bit bored with navel-gazing, and crime readers feeling a bit stale from too much formula. Far more often than one would expect this little 1993 title has come up when I’m talking with readers about books that they’re really loved. The book is tightly constructed and doesn’t really allow me to relate much plot, as the discoveries are paced so well. Through the wistful voice of a grown man looking back at his Western childhood that will seem familiar to fans of Willa Cather’s My Antonia or Conrad Richter’s The Sea of Grass, we gradually learn of the rivaly of the Hayden brothers, one a war hero and doctor, the other a sheriff. Soon a shameful secret is revealed, and sets in motion an unavoidable conflict between the two men, with unforeseen consequences. “A good book is twice as good if it is short,” said Balthasar Gracian. Truer words were never spoke.