Monday, March 19, 2018

& SONS by David Gilbert (fiction)

I enjoyed this book; I like the writing, and I especially liked the recognizable setting in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  Explaining the plot is not easy without giving away the climax of the novel, and there a number of characters with their own stories.  The novel largely focuses on one family, the Dyers, and opens with the funeral of Charlie Topping, the childhood friend of Andrew Dyer, a celebrated author.  Andrew Dyer has a cult following, a la J. D.Salinger, even to his sobriquet, A. D. Dyer.  His reputation rests mainly on his novel “Ampersand,” which won him the Pulitzer Prize and 50 years later is still being published. Chapters are introduced with letters from Dyer to Charlie from day camp and beyond.  They remained best friends through childhood, summer camp, their days at Exeter Academy and into old age.  Dyer’s novel has a lot to do with their days at Exeter, and this crops up throughout the book.  Philip Topping, Charlie’s son, newly divorced and a lost soul, narrates the story and is privy to all events even into the minds of the characters.  It works perfectly from a reader’s point of view.

Dyer, not surprisingly, is absent to his children, spending most of his time barricaded in his office writing.  His two older sons, Richard a former addict who has turned counsellor, and Jamie a free spirited documentary film maker who has drifted through life, are immersed in their own stories and arrive on the scene only when summoned by Dyer who is convinced he is dying.  Dyer and their mother divorced after 31 years of marriage when he had an affair which resulted in the birth of a third son, Andy who is now a teenager.  It is important to Dyer, for reasons the reader will discover, that he exacts a promise from his elder sons to look after Andy when Dyer passes on.  This family reunion orchestrated by Dyer is awkward to say the least.  His first wife, settled in a second marriage and living in Connecticut, is also asked to attend to the narcissistic “dying” man.

Readers familiar with Central Park and the museums of the East Side, will find much that is recognizable.  The setting adds to the enjoyment of the novel.  Gilbert is an accomplished writer who spins a good tale.  I recommend this novel to all readers.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

AMONG THE LIVING AND THE DEAD by Inara Verzemnieks (memoir)

A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe

Of all the reading I have done on World War II, I had never given much thought to Latvia and its place during and after the war.   Inara Verzemnieks eloquent and poetic memoir about her search for her roots opened up an immigrant family’s story and shed light on a Baltic country I knew little about.

Inara was born in Tacoma, Washington.  Her childhood was an unhappy one until she went to live with her paternal grandparents.  Her mother was abusive and her father suffered from the effects of the war in Viet Nam and was a stranger to her.  All the love and warmth she received as a child came from her Latvian grandparents.  The ex-pat community of Latvians in Tacoma were committed to keeping up the old traditions and Inara was sent to summer camp every year where the children lived in cabins which were replicas of Latvian wooden farm houses; they sang Latvian songs, saluted the Latvian flag, ate Latvian food and learned traditional Latvian farming.  I have seen this before where immigrant groups in America keep strong traditions alive, but it is dying out as the older generation who brought these traditions die out.

After her grandparents die, the adult Inara travels to Latvia to satisfy the longing she feels to connect her to her grandparents story, a story they avoided speaking of.  She does this for a part of every year for five years.  Inara wants to find the "invisible cities, places constructed of memory.” On her first trip she says, “The road I must travel to reach my grandmother’s lost village is like tracing the progression of an equation designed to restore lost time.  Each kilometer that carries me from Riga seems to subtract five years.”  She travels to Gulbene, a rural farming community, in the northeast part of Latvia, close to the Russian border. There she meets her great aunt Ausma, the last of the old generation and the only one who can shine a light of Inara’s grandmother’s past.

It is difficult for Ausma to revisit the past and for a long time she resists it. She says, “Your grandmother’s stories aren’t my stories." Finally she relents and Inara and the reader begin to understand the complicated past of the Latvian people caught between Germany and Russia.  Inara’s grandfather never spoke of being conscripted into the German army, her grandmother never spoke about the perilous journey she took with young children across war torn Europe to land in refugee camp.  Gradually Ausma tells her the story of being sent to Siberia along with 200,000 Latvians after the war when the country became part of the Soviet Union.  There she was forced to perform hard physical labor.  Along with her family’s story Inara comes to see the thread that connects Latvia’s past to its present as a vibrant member of NATO and the European Union, a past that will never be erased, a past that contains both shame and glory.

Verzemnieks is a beautiful writer and tells a story that might be familiar to many refugee families.  Though it chronicles the past, it is connected to today’s world with its many families fleeing a torturous past, hoping for what can only be a better future. I recommend this book to all readers.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

MANHATTAN BEACH by Jennifer Egan (fiction)

Jennifer Egan’s last book, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Egan is an accomplished writer and one of my favorites.   Her writing is prosaic and small meaningful details add to the depth of the story.

When we first enter the story, a young, somewhat precocious girl named Anna Kerrigan is driving with her father to meet a shady character connected to the Brooklyn underworld.  It is winter, the year is 1934 and the man, Dexter Styles, will play an important role in Anna’s life.  In this small introduction to the characters, we right away catch a glimpse of the strong woman Anna will become.  The depression is on and it is inferred that Anna’s father has fallen on hard times after the stock market crash. The car they are driving belongs to another, and in desperation to feed his family and buy a wheelchair for Anna’s severely handicapped sister, he has taken on a job as a bag man for a crooked Union boss.

The book then leaps ahead to the early 1940s when the US had just entered the war.  Anna gets a job on the Manhattan docks which at this time are servicing the many warships that come and go.  Her father has disappeared, and Anna is the mainstay of her family, what little money she earns going toward making her sister comfortable. Egan is at her best making the world of the docks and workers come alive in vivid detail.  It reminds me of the ambiance of the old movie, “On the Waterfront.”  Soon tiring of her boring line job, Anna becomes fascinated with the divers she sees working on the ships underwater hulls. Through determination and strength of character, Anna manages to join the crew in work that is meaningful to her, as the only woman diver. She earns the respect of the men she works with. Anna’s life at this time is reflected in the many many cultural details that Egan includes for us.  We can see how the War is beginning to change women’s lives and their importance in the workplace.

Not knowing the fate of her father is the catalyst that drives Anna to find Dexter Styles again, with the hopes that he will provide her with the answer.  Styles is rich and has married into an old, wealthy and respected New York family.  He is an alpha male moving the society of his father-in-law.  Egan brings in some of the politics of the era and is fabulous at describing family dynamics and how the depression and war changed family structure forever.

I love the way Egan weaves the characters together as their relationships ebb and flow.  I love Anna’s relationship with her father, her sister, with Styles and the bosses on the waterfront, and how these characters affect and change Anna. As a character Anna is strong, resourceful, open-minded and clever.  Just the same she makes mistakes and because of this is a real human being.

I really enjoyed this book and felt I was part of the life of the Brooklyn, lower Manhattan and the busy docks that are no longer there in the same way.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

LOUISA by Louisa Thomas (biography)

The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams

What admiration I have for Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of President John Quincy Adams. She was born in 1775 in London to an American father and English mother.  It wasn’t until she was older that she discovered that at the time of her birth, her parents weren’t married, though to all outward appearances they were.  It was a lively household of beautiful young girls, who grew up privileged, though their father was ever in debt.  They were accomplished, intelligent and trained in all the social graces.  Their father, Joshua Johnson was a buyer for an American firm in Maryland.  Because of his unsettled financial situation, at various times the family lived in France, England and America, and the girls were multi-lingual.

The first time Louisa met John Quincy Adams, she thought he looked ridiculous because of his unfashionable dress, his stiff manner and his poor social graces. He was a young diplomat in training and was equally as well-traveled as Louisa. Despite all, he was an attractive man, and if she wasn’t sure she loved him when they became engaged, she was sure she was in love by the time they married.

Louisa was a brilliant prolific writer and because of this we have a good record of her life and that of her husband.  She always kept a diary, was an excellent letter writer, and even wrote plays and fiction. She grew into an ambitious woman who was probably responsible for her husband being elected President.  In the early days of the American republic, politics were conducted undercover.  Men did not promote themselves or appeal directly to the public, and John Quincy considered his work to be a public duty.  The real power to pick a President was in the Republican Congressional Caucus.  Until 1824 the popular vote wasn’t even counted.  As today, Washington was full of gossip and jockeying for power.  But, politics as we know it usually happened during social occasions.  Since John Quincy was uninterested in playing the political game, and Louisa was socially adept, it became her task to make sure the right people attended their dinners and parties.

Before all this Washington life, however, Louisa had plenty of training, having lived all over the world as the wife of a diplomat. One of her favorite postings was in Berlin, Germany.  Her harrowing adventures fleeing across Europe from St. Petersburg to Paris in 1815, are worthy of a book unto itself.  John Quincy had left her alone in Petersburg with their son Charles as he was taking part in the Treaty of Ghent.  As Napoleon’s troops advanced on Russia, she made the decision to leave.  She arrived safely after many close calls under the roughest of conditions.  This trip changed her into a more independent self-confident woman as well as changed her relationship with her husband.

Louisa suffered numerous miscarriages as women did in those days, and she suffered from severe bouts of illness, some of them probably psychosomatic.  Life with John Quincy was difficult.  He was rigid, demanding and often absent.  He rarely consulted Louisa on major decisions, family and public.  It was a difficult life for an intelligent woman who was fully capable of being the equal of her husband.  Thus, she turned to writing and poured her soul into her diaries.  Despite his difficult personality, Louisa and John Quincy had a passionate marriage.  She also came to love and admire his parents, John and Abigail Adams, and kept up a warm correspondence with them, especially John.

Louisa died in 1852.  She did not have an easy life, and she lived through a most interesting time in history.  She wrote two autobiographical books.  One called “Record of a Life” detailed the early years of her marriage. The other she called “The Adventures of a Nobody.”  She was far from that.  And even though she was not recognized for all her accomplishments while she lived, as the author states, “She left us a voice.”

I greatly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to all readers.  It would be an excellent choice for a book reading group.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

THE NINTH HOUR by Alice McDermott (fiction)

As I began this book, I was put in mind of the PBS program, Call the Midwife, but I wasn’t long into the book before it became a much darker tale.  The nuns in Midwife deal with the beginning of life, the nuns living in post World War I Brooklyn are dealing daily with death.  This is not a story of nuns abusing poor women, rather it is a story of the sacrifices good, often naive and dedicated women made by choosing a vocation with a Catholic order called Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor.  It is a complex novel of Irish Catholic life in the years after the war, and the effects of guilt and shame which were inevitably a part of Catholic life at that time.

“The Ninth Hour” opens with the suicide of a depressed subway worker named Jim.  He leaves behind a pregnant wife named Annie.  A wonderful, pragmatic and savvy nun, Sr. St. Savior arrives on the scene, takes over and does her best to have Jim buried in the Church (in those days, Catholic burial was denied suicides).  Though she fails in her effort to do this, she saves Annie’s life and that of the daughter Annie bore by finding her a place as a laundress in the convent.  The story then becomes a bildungsroman of Sally, Annie’s daughter.  It then follows her into mid-life and old age.

Sally grew into a happy, albeit, sheltered child who was fondly watched over by the kindly Sr. Illuminata, head laundress, while her mother worked.  There is plenty of interesting detail about life in the convent in this section.  When Sally mistakenly thinks she has the calling to become a nun, the wise Sr. Lucy who is well acquainted with life outside the convent, arranges for Sally to accompany the nursing nuns on their daily rounds, often tending to the sordid details of the sick and ill.  Sally soon discovers the nursing life,attending to bodily needs, is not for her.  Still unworldly, she decides to enter a novitiate of a more contemplative order.  Luckily the reader is not bound for another convent because, when Sally boards a train for Chicago, she meets up with a host of interesting characters who soon divest her of her money.  They are a cast worthy of a Dickens novel, especially one large, sweaty, vulgar woman who  is saved from being a caricature by McDermott’s fine descriptive writing. This was only part of Sally’s maturing.  She returns home to another secret which we readers already knew.  

The only part of the book that didn’t work for me, was that of hearing some of Sally’s story through the eyes of her adult children.  I would have preferred the story to just be told without their intrusion into the novel.

McDermott writes so well, the story holds the readers interest right to the end of the novel and Sally’s life.  She manages to give us happy along with the grim.  She presents a frank portrayal of convent life in a realistic manner. The nuns we meet are rounded human beings with flaws alongside their self-sacrifice.  McDermott shows us the effect that the belief in the need for atonement and indulgences can have on the formation of character.

I recommend this novel to all readers.  It is a well constructed and well written story of life in a Brooklyn that is long past.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


This important book was a massive undertaking for the writer and the reader; it is hard to know where to begin and what to emphasize.  It is about the same size as "War and Peace” and it takes a dedicated reader to absorb all the information the author has compiled.  I put it down and took it up over the course of two months.  Slezkine has set out to write a history of the rise of Bolshevism and the history of the Russian Revolution by structuring the story around one building in Moscow, the massive apartment house which became known as the House on the Embankment.

The section of the book I enjoyed the most was reading about the early years of the Bolshevik movement.  Like much revolutionary thought, it began with young intellectuals, members of the class which eventually was overthrown as the movement took hold, and morphed into something entirely different.  The writings of Karl Marx were not particularly popular in Russia at the turn of the century, rather the early meetings took a millenarian cultish approach, religious in their Utopian idealism.  Early leaders of the movement hoped to inspire the oppressed peasant population to revolt against the Tzar and ruling classes, but it wasn’t until the equally oppressed working classes in the cities became fired up that Bolshevism took hold.  By that time the party was in the hands of Lenin, Sverdlov, and eventually Stalin.

After World War I, Bolshevik philosophy began to spread to other countries, but never took hold the way it did in Russia.  Five years after Lenin claimed the name USSR, the building of the House on the Embankment began. It was a time of rapid industrialization.   Boris Iofan, the architect, planned a building that eventually held 505 apartments and housed over two thousand tenants.  A muddy island area of Moscow, known as “the swamp” and home to a number of factories, was chosen for his grand design.  I found it amazing that this large labyrinthine building housed so many things that we think of as modern today. The building was completed in 1931.  It was like a town within a building.  Besides apartments, there was a theater, a cinema, workout areas and a pool, restaurants, childcare services, a health clinic, hairdressers and barbers.  It married convenience with housing and was a wonder of its age or any age.  As Bolshevism morphed into the totalitarian communist party which ruled the country through the 30s and onward, the apartments were reserved for the top members of the bureaucracy, the party elites, even Khrushchev lived there when he was a rising star.

During Stalin’s years of thuggish dictatorship, the occupants were cushioned and isolated from the reality of the outside world and the starving masses during Stalin’s failing 5 year plans. And then during the long years of political purges, reality hit home and the tenants came and went in the madness of a revolving door of arrests and power changes.  During those years, some 800 occupants disappeared, arrested during the night, never to be seen again.

Eventually World War II and the German invasions took their toll, the building survived, but its occupants were not so exclusive.  Then after the fall of the Soviet Union near the turn of the century, the House of Government had a make over and the newly rich moved in renovating the apartments and turning them into condominiums.  It is wondrous that so much history survived and some families are still decedents of original tenants.  It is still a desirable place to live and many apartments look down on a square that is famous for demonstrations.

The wealth of information and breath of research in this book makes it one of a kind.  It is an important book but not one read for pleasure.  It is a great resource and an important addition to one’s library.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

SING, UNBURIED,SING by Jesmyn Ward (fiction)

In my opinion, Jesmyn Ward is one of the most gifted writers in America.  This is the second book of hers to have won the National Book Award for fiction. It was also listed as one of the NY Times ten best books of 2017.  “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is beautifully written, poetic in its cadences and in the voices of the characters who live along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.  As in her other two books, the people of the coast are crushingly poor and disadvantaged.  The setting is the same town of Bois Sauvage that was in her first book, “Savage the Bones.”

The story is told in three distinct voices, each narrating in the first person.  The most realistic and touchable of the three is 13 year old Jojo whose white father, Michael, is in an upstate penitentiary, known as Parchman Farm.  The inmates are expected to work on the land under very tough conditions.  Jojo’s black mother is an addict who neglects her children, though she isn’t devoid of feeling, but she has lost the touch of how to be a mother.  Jojo and his three year old sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Pop and Mam who is dying of cancer.

Michael is about to be paroled from jail and Leonie, the children’s mother, gets it into her head that she wants to take the children on a road trip up state to the penitentiary to pick up their father.  What a road trip it is.  Along for the ride is Leoni’s friend, Misty who adds to the stress by insisting they take a side trip into the back woods to pick up some drugs.  Throughout the trip, the children are forgotten occupants of the back seat, neglected and unfed.  Jojo does his best to care for Kayla, who responds only to him, and day and night will not leave his side.

Michael’s release adds confusion to the return trip, and with him comes the ghostly presence of a 12 year old boy named Richie who had been sentenced for stealing meat many years before.  Richie has some connection with Pop who became his protector when he was sentenced to the same prison.

The characters are all beautifully drawn and their relationships and hard lives all too real.  The lost souls who inhabit the novel along with the family are drawn from elements of voodoo and a mixture of African folklore and Catholic beliefs.  This requires the reader to step out of reality and understand how the real and supernatural are entwined.  I found this difficult, and I did not enjoy the book as much as I did Ward’s previous novels.  I still recommend the book for a look at the ongoing problems of poverty and race relations in the United States, and especially for Ward’s brilliant writing.