Let the Great World Spin

At first I wasn’t convinced of all the hype. Maybe it was the Eggers enthusiastic endorsement that kept it at arms length for me. But eventually, I grew to like this book.
Events surrounding the summer day in 1974 that Philippe Petit walked on a wire strung between the World Trade Center towers. An Irish monk/priest, his bartender brother, the hookers he brings coffee for and lets use his bathroom to clean up, a car crash with one of the hookers post-police lockup. The people who hit his van, artists in the backwoods setting out to sell their work in the city, then leaving the scene of the crime to flee back to the cabin, hiding the car. The judge and his wife, who mourn the death of their hacker son in Vietnam. The crew from Palo Alto who ring up a pay phone near the Towers and have people describe the scene for them while the man is on the wire. The group of mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam.

Ellis Island & Other Stories

Not as dazzling as other collections by Helprin. The eponymous story was the best, an immigrant gets to Ellis Island and becomes so frenzied with wanting to meet the beautiful Dutch girl he sees across the room, gets marked as an anarchist, spends a few weeks in the kitchen on the island waiting for transport back to the old world, he escapes into the kosher kitchen, then into Manhattan where he gets drunk on bourbon at lunch with shark who stiffs him with the bill, heads into the frigid January night and ends up at a drawing class to stay warm, then a fire tender job for street pavers to thaw the ground, explosions, off to a rabbi’s palace, then to a bakery to attempt to get a job, and finally to become a faux tailor where he meets his wife to be.
Other stories of war, of Vermont winters, a photographer who ventures into the alpine wildness and trains himself into tip top climbing shape to assuage the loss of his wife/son only to do his climbing in his dreams at night, then pack up for Munchen when done.
From A Vermont Tale:

A fireplace was in the room; a picture of Melville (the handsomest man I have ever seen, surely not so much for what he looked like but for what he was); wooden pegs on which to hang our goose vests and Christmas hats; shelves and shelves of illustrated books.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Completely devoured this collection of short stories in an hour. I may need to go back and re-read, as that was too quick to savor each delicate bite.
The collection opens with a bang– Why Don’t You Dance? — where a man has moved his entire bedroom and kitchen outside to the front lawn, assembled as it was in the house, but now outside it. People slowly drive by but don’t stop. He watches. Later, a young couple who need furniture for their apartment stop to buy the bed and desk. He returns from the store with whiskey, sits and watches them paw over his stuff, accepting their lower bids easily. He turns on the phonograph and invites them to dance. The girl then dances with the man, commenting that his neighbors are watching. “That’s right,” the man said. “They thought they’d seen everything over here. But they haven’t seen this, have they?”
Through the swirl of the other stories, there are divorces, couples talking through the major moments, ex-wives putting up with bad behavior from ex-husbands (the one who stole 6 pies from her at Christmas, one for every ten times she had betrayed him), drinking, waxing philosophically about the meaning of love, birthday cake custom made for a boy who was then hit by a car, young couples, old couples, babies.

Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin

Reads like a murder mystery, but is a well-researched compilation of information about the days leading up to MLK’s assassination and the two month manhunt to find his killer.
James Earl Ray is introduced to us as “416-J”, his inmate number in Jefferson City, Missouri. He escapes from this maximum security prison by squeezing himself into a breadbox (he practiced making this tight ball in his cell night after night), then bursting out of the bakery truck once it had cleared prison grounds. 416J heads to Mexico and becomes Eric Starvo Galt, determined to pick up photography and earn money as a porn producer.
Galt makes his way to Los Angeles and volunteers at the George Wallace for President headquarters (Wallace gets enough signatures to be allowed on the California ballot for President that year). Next stop, Atlanta, where he boards at a flophouse and plots his coming attack on MLK in Memphis. Galt takes a room in Memphis with a view of the Lorraine Hotel, and scurries into the bathroom for a direct bead on MLK’s room. Once MLK is shot, Galt bolts, but has to jettison his gun in the doorway of a store so as not to draw attention to himself from the cops nearby. He heads to Atlanta, leaves his car abandoned in an apartment complex parking lot, then Greyhounds to Detroit, and then into Canada. He then researches likely names to take, deciding on Ramon George Sneyd. After a nervous two weeks, he obtains a passport and flies to London, briefly to Portugal, then back to London where he is finally detained by the Scotland Yard for possession of a gun when trying to fly to Brussels. Then extradited to the US, sentenced to 99 years, and the final chapter details his escape and subsequent capture from a Tennessee prison.
Interspersed with Ray’s story is the story of Martin Luther King, whose popularity in the Civil Rights movement is waning with an uptick in Black Power. Memphis is the site of an outbreak in violence when he tries to lead a peaceful march to support the garbage workers union. He decides to come back to Memphis and lead a successful march, but first must overcome a federal injunction not to march. This keeps him in the area for days, and his team is celebrating their victory in court at the motel when King is shot. He is just about to go to a soul food feast at a friends, and lingers on the balcony talking to people in the court below. All accounts make it seem that he knew it was coming. If not today, then soon. In the chaos after the shooting, Jesse Jackson lies to reporters and says that he cradled Martin’s head and that Martin’s last word were spoken to him. Jackson puts his palms in the blood pool and wipes them on his clean white shirt, then flies to Chicago with bloodied shirt. The leaderless group decides to continue with MLK’s plan for a Poor People’s encampment in Washington DC. While the thousands are camped in a shantytown on the Mall, they receive word of Ray’s arrest in London.

Half of a Yellow Sun

Fictionalized account of Nigeria before, during, and after the Biafra/Nigerian war in the 1960s. Fantastic writing, story lines that pull you in, characters you yearn to know better.
Ugwu, a peasant recruited to be the houseboy of a professor (Odenigbo), guides us through most of the story, from joining the household astonished by the fact they ate meat every day, growing up with fantasies about the girl back in his village, becoming an integral part of the family with Olanna & Baby, conscripted into the army and surviving but haunted.
Odenigbo the professor whose fiery salons are so enjoyable pre-war. Evenings of discussion, food, drink. Books everywhere. Olanna the beautiful aristocratic Igbo woman who forgives her man’s indiscretions and raises Baby as her own child. Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene, disappears at the end, in the days right before the war ends, in a search for food on the black market. Kainene’s lover, Richard Churchill, a white journalist trying fiercely to write a novel about the events unfolding before him, ends up searching for her in the post-war era.
Great writing, suggested by the wise Biblioracle.