Sunday, November 26, 2017

A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman (fiction)

This international best seller, translated into 38 languages, also has been made into a stage show and movie which you can catch on Netflix.  Bachman has had great success with Ove which is one of Sweden’s most popular books along with the Steig Larson thrillers.  The books couldn’t be more different.

Who is Ove?  He is a cranky widower who is lonely, and except for a running dialogue with his dead wife, he is uncommunicative and unpleasant to his neighbors.  As the book exposes Ove’s background, the reader becomes aware that perhaps he suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Adherence to rules play a big part in his life.  His loving wife was able to jolly him out of his penchant for extreme order and compulsive behavior.  He loved her dearly, as she was his anchor, and after her death he sinks into a depressive morass.  If you think this is a sad and serious book, you would be mistaken.  Parts of it are hilarious as Ove tries to police his neighbors, usually unsuccessfully.  Ove’s attempts at suicide are equally comical and thwarted at every turn.

Two influences work on Ove to turn his lonely life around.  On is a mangy, stray cat which he finds impossible to ignore and the other is Parveneh, a delightfully drawn pregnant Iranian immigrant, with two daughters who seem impervious to his grumpy ways and shower him with affection.

It is impossible to dislike this book and its characters, even Ove.   It is charming and funny and tugs on your heartstrings as Ove begins to realize that no man is an island. Love is what heals Ove and if you look at his name, you see that only the L is missing which is just what his journey is about.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

THE LONG DROP by Denise Mina (fiction)

Denise Mina is a well-regarded Scottish crime writer who’s genius is recreating for the reader the realistic, dank and dark streets of Glasgow.  “The Long Drop” is different from her other mysteries in that it is a semi-fictionalized account of Scotland’s most famous serial killer, Peter Manuel, known as the “Beast of Birkenshaw.”  Between 1956 and 1958, he murdered eight people.  It is a sad fact that in today’s world one is used to much higher death figures, but back in the day in a country where firearms were not common, he struck terror in the hearts of many. The long drop refers to a method of hanging used at the time.

Mina has structured her book by alternating chapters of Manuel’s murder trial and the time of the actual events.  They are equally fascinating.  Manuel is clearly a psychopath who suffers no remorse for his horrendous deeds.  Instead he fancies himself a writer and fabricates elaborate stories. When he is accorded his moment in the witness box, he blathers on with lie after lie making his life the story he wanted to live.

During Hogmanay celebrations seeing in the New Year of 1956, Manuel murdered the Smart family, mother, father and son who lived in a small town outside of Glasgow.  Gruesomely, before the bodies were discovered, he returned to the house several times as if to verify his deed.   He was responsible for the hideous murder of several women, and the wife, daughter and sister-in-law of William Watt.

Here is where the story really becomes weird because Watt, soon to be matey with Manuel, was at first one of the chief murder suspects.  Watt, was searching for the murderer in an attempt to vindicate himself, and was introduced to Manuel by his lawyer as a person of interest who might have information on the real culprit.  Manuel played this card to the hilt and soon had roped Watt into a night of boozing and comradely bonding, including an introduction to the real-life feared crime boss Dandy McKay.  Despite their vast difference in background and looks, the two men had things in common.  Both longed to be accepted as one of the lads, both were drinkers trying to outdo the other, both were looking for friendship, each exaggerated his talents. Watt spent money liberally during this strange evening and Manuel took advantage of his generosity.  It wasn’t until Watt got his brother involved that the suspicion that Manuel was really the murderer arose.  It seemed Manuel knew too many little details of the crime and his boasting began to implicated him as he went deeper into the story with his boasting.

Manuel’s trial was famous, and weirdly it gave him what he was looking for all along.   Mina has written a fascinating book of true crime with a dark setting that places the reader in the middle of the smokey decade of the 50s when the Glaswegian underworld was to be feared.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

MARTIN LUTHER by Lyndal Roper (non-fic)


Seeing that it is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I thought I should learn more about its beginnings and the man who began it all, Martin Luther.  You can’t do better than to read Lyndal Roper’s biography of Luther.  Her research is thorough and impeccable, and she has written an absorbing account, not only of Luther’s life from childhood, but also of the historical events and social influences which led up to the posting  of the 95 Theses on the 31st of October nailed to the door of a Wittenberg church.

Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany in 1483.  The family moved to the mining town of Mansfeld where his father had a successful business.  If Martin had followed the norms of his social class, he would have studied law.  But, nothing was ordinary about Martin Luther.  In the first rebellious act against his father, Martin chose to study for the priesthood and entered an Augustinian monastery.
Luther was brilliant with a strong and magnetic personality, and it wasn’t long before he chafed at the rules and authority he lived under. He attracted a large number of acolytes willing to challenge the precepts of the Catholic Church and criticize the materialistic practises that had grown up within the medieval church, such as the odious selling of indulgences and the opulent lifestyle of the Pope, cardinals and bishops of the church.  He inspired great loyalty in other scholarly men.

There is such a wealth of material covered in this book, it is impossible to pick out the most important.  Luther’s rise coincided with the rise of the printing press and the wider dissemination and affordability of books and pamphlets.  Accounts of Luther’s speeches and writing was passed from hand to hand and before long his fame had spread throughout Germany and Europe.  Luther’s collected works have survived and fill 130 volumes.  He alone counted for 20% of all the writing printed in Germany between 1500 and 1530. His translation of the Bible into German was probably the greatest influence on common households. Another reason that Luther was so successful is that he had the backing of the princes and nobility, who saw that breaking with Rome and the Church, would give them greater autonomy in relations with the country and abroad.  Luther’s assertion that only the Bible had doctrinal authority and faith alone was justification for one’s beliefs was very attractive to the ruling class.

After the Diet of Worms and Luther’s excommunication, his fame spread even further.  In 1525 he married an ex-nun, Katharina von Bora.  Luther was an earthy man who enjoyed a good laugh; he did not shy away from sexuality, and could be vulgar and cutting in his criticisms of others.  He did not like to be contradicted and had a healthy ego. As he aged, his very bulk gave testament to his enjoyment of life, he was not an aesthetic.   In short, he was very human with weaknesses as well as strengths.

Luther’s chief venom was aimed at the Pope and Jews.  His writings directed toward the Jews are shocking, even given the context of the age in which he lived.  His unfounded accusations and his desire to expel them from the country traces a direct line to Hitler’s Germany.

Luther was reluctant to delegate responsibility to his followers.  After he broke with Catholicism he didn’t create a structure or hierarchy for his own church, and it was a task left to others after his death in 1546 at age 62.

I had the good fortune to travel in Saxony a few years ago.  One cannot help but see signs of Luther’s legacy everywhere.  The many beautiful Lutheran churches survived the many wars and the communist take-over of Eastern Germany after World War II.  And, of course, the beautiful and inspiring church music composed by Bach is a delightful reminder of Luther’s powerful influence.

I highly recommend this book to all who wish to acquaint themselves with the beginnings of the Protestant faith and at the same time read the life of one of history’s most fascinating individuals.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

WORLD MADE BY HAND by James Kunstler (fiction)

Despite the fact that this novel paints a dystopian future that seems all too possible in today’s overwrought world, the reader will find the author has created an alternative that has a certain aura of peacefulness about it.  The story takes place in Union Grove a small town along the Hudson at a time in the future when life fueled by modern conveniences has come full stop.  Terrorist attacks and hacks have destroyed the underlying structure and technology of modern cities.  The federal government has gone underground, and small cities and towns find themselves isolated.  The economy has fallen to pieces after gas becomes all but unavailable.  The lack of antibiotics has decimated the population as a wide-spread plague attacks the vulnerable.  Global warming has played havoc in destroying once vibrant cities.

All this is in the past as the story opens.  Robert Earle, a former software executive, is our narrator.  Having lost his family, he has been able to make a living through carpentry and playing the violin with a local group. The now small town of Union Grove is kept alive in a disorganized fashion.  People barter their skills in return for goods and take up small farming, much as the colonial world existed.  Earle finds himself in the position of helping the town to organize a sustainable society that will be of some benefit to its citizens. It has little to do with the world left behind.

As often happens when law and order fail and society breaks down, there arises a petty dictator. Wayne Karp, a thug living on the outskirts of town, opens a “general store,” bilking the villagers and running the local economy like a banana republic.  On the other side of town Steven Bullock, formally a wealthy landowner, has built up a model farm set up in the manner of a feudal society with himself as the benevolent overlord.  Before long, Brother Jobe arrives in town.  He is another type of overlord, one who has convinced his followers that he has been divinely chosen to lead them to the promised land.  He is a clever huckster with enough of a following to threaten what had been an established way of life in Union Grove.

All of these characters connect one summer in the life of the town and change the direction it takes.
Kunstler has written a novel that is realistic in the aftermath of a world tragedy.  Though the world has changed, human nature has not, nor has man’s desire to create order out of chaos.  It makes for an interesting story of a future that is easy to imagine. The book is well-written and the characters are believable and skillfully drawn.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

PEOPLE WHO SAY GOODBYE by P.Y. Betts (non-fic)

Memories of Childhood

This is a lovely memoir about growing up outside of London during World War I. The author, Phyllis Yvonne Betts, born in 1909, was five years old when the great war broke out, and this is the period she writes about. Seen through the eyes of a child, life in a middle-class family is told with humor, a child’s honest observation, and filled with the homely details that make a story come to life.  It was a dangerous time before the discovery of antibiotics and children were often sent away when a family member came down with illnesses we don’t have to worry about these days.  The dreaded Dr. Biggs would arrive at the house with his scruffy black bag, take a temperature, listen to the heart, and usually prescribe the same un-salacious tonic for all illnesses, with instructions to keep the “bow’els” (as he pronounced it) open.

Phyllis’s mother was from a rich and snobbish family, full of pretensions, a home a child dreaded having to visit, a home filled with confusing social rules and customs.  Her father’s family in contrast were warm and down-to-earth people where comfort food was always on offer.  Her descriptions of these households and occupants are wonderful.

Betts’ understanding of war was limited, but she knew people who say goodbye often never returned home unless in the funeral parades given for fallen soldiers.  I loved her description of the several schools she attended, where little was taught, yet she managed a complete education.  Most of all I enjoyed reading of all the bits and pieces of everyday life, often mystifying to a child, during a difficult period of history.  I highly recommend this book to readers who enjoy social history filled with sharp insights and humor.

Monday, October 23, 2017

PURE by Andrew Miller (fiction)

“Pure” is one of the best written and most interesting books I have read this year.  Once again, Miller seems to have a thorough grasp of the subject he is writing about, in this case, an invented story of a real incident that is so realistic the reader loses him/herself in the era leading up to the French Revolution.  The setting is Paris in 1785.  An idealistic young man, Jean Baptiste Barrate, arrives  from his home in northwestern France.  He is an ambitious engineer, a builder of bridges with a background in mining, and he is determined to make a name for himself.  He arrives full of the energy of youth and modern ideas of philosophy, a follower of Voltaire who has no connection with traditional religion.  Baratte has been given a government commission, and he is as innocent of the difficulty of the task he is assigned as the name of the church and its cemetery, Les Innocents, that he is to raze to the ground as well as remove all the bones to another area of the city.  Many ended up in Pere-Lachaise and Montmartre.

Les Innocents is an ancient church with a huge sprawling graveyard which has grown and taken over the area we know as Les Halles.  There were thousands and thousands of people buried on top of one another, burrowing deep into the ground.  It is said that from the bubonic plague alone 50,000 have been interred.  Arriving at his workplace, Jean is appalled and horrified at the  overpowering stench of death which has permeated the city for miles around. The church itself is abandoned except for an ancient cleric and an organist, Armand, who becomes a close friend of Baratte.  Living close by is a sexton and his granddaughter who will play a part in the unfolding events.

Once he gets over the shock of the enormity of his assignment, Baratte sets to work to the best of his abilities.  He enlists the aid of an old colleague and friend, Lecoeur, who helps him hire a ragtag group of miners who may be the only ones capable of completing such a horrific task.  At the same time, Jean finds accommodation with a couple named Monnard, who have a daughter who is possibly deranged. As the work moves forward, the lives of all these people are deeply affected.  Jean, himself, loses his illusions and enthusiasm.  His clothes which bordered on the foppish change to sober black. He spends too many sleepless nights.  His wanderings through the city introduces the reader to ordinary people trying to survive under the weight of a government and king who are divorced from everyday life.  Versailles where Jean goes to report his progress seems almost as empty and cavernous as the church he is destroying.

Despite all the darkness, there is love and caring among the people helping Jean.  In the end when his task is complete and revolution is imminent,  Baratte is a very different man than the naive youth who arrived in Paris so full of promise.

Miller has a way of weaving history into the lives of ordinary people and at the same time turning the story into an allegory of the destruction of France as revolution looms.  I enjoyed this book for its history, story and excellent writing.  I highly recommend it to all readers.  It is a good choice for a reading group with much to discuss.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

THE RIVAL QUEENS by Nancy Goldstone (non-fic)

Nancy Goldstone has written an excellent book, a duel biography, about a most dangerous and dramatic time in French history.  Her chronicle of the end of the Valois rule is a reliable picture of the state of Europe at a time when strong women ruled in England and France.  “The Rival Queens” is both well-written and readable.  With Queen Elizabeth secure in her throne in England, the rival queens of the title are Catherine de’Medici (1519-1589), widow of Henry II, and her daughter Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615).  It is a fascinating and exciting time in history, despite the upheavals and rivalries  all over Europe, the late Renaissance arts are flourishing.  It was a time when Machiavellian principles rendered ruling families manipulative and dysfunctional and alliances changed precipitously

Catherine de’Medici ruled in all but name as regent over her weak sons.  But, her position was vulnerable, and she masterfully and nefariously played off the powerful Catholic League against the Huguenot Party led by the House of Navarre, switching sides as it suited her.

The beautiful Marguerite was also a strong-minded woman, but without the power of her mother, and was often the pawn of intrigue and family jealousies.  Against her will and inclination (she was in love with a cousin) she was married off in great pomp and ceremony in 1572 to Henry of Navarre, who by a quirk of fate, later became Henri IV of France.  The history of the time is filled with Henry's and Henri’s and keeping them straight as they float in and out of importance is a challenge.  Five days after the ill-fated marriage of Marguerite and Henry, the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre began.  The royal wedding spectacle, on which massive amounts of money was spent, was part of a plot by Catherine to lure the Huguenots into the narrow streets of Paris to assassinate their leaders.  After this, Marguerite’s life became one of extreme danger, as she never knew whether she would be in favor or out of favor with whatever brother was currently ruling under the thumb of Catherine.

Despite all, the royal brothers fell, one by one, until the last, Henri III, Catherine’s favored son, is assassinated.  Before dying, he names Henry of Navarre his successor. But, by this time, Marguerite and Henry had been separated for many years and Marguerite had been living in exile.  Eventually a deal was brokered between them, and the marriage was dissolved and annulled in 1599.  After this, Marguerite was allowed to return to her beloved Paris, and she reconciled with Henry who was now Henri IV.  She drifted into a position of a favorite family aunt, becoming especially close to the children of Henri and his second wife.

Goldstone is an excellent writer and the history related in the book is as gripping as a novel with twists and turns as different factions move in and out of alliances and power.  There was always a power struggle whether at home or abroad, and adding to the intrigue were the many love affairs carried on by the royals. The author provides an extensive bibliography and reference notes.  There is also a helpful map and family chart. This is an excellent well-written read, especially for anyone interested in French history.