Wednesday, January 17, 2018

MOTHER NIGHT by Kurt Vonnegut (fiction)

I wouldn’t dare to review a book by the great Kurt Vonnegut, but if you are a Vonnegut fan and have not read this book (his third novel), you should give it a try.  It is different than his other books.  Or maybe I shouldn’t say that, as each of Vonnegut’s books are highly imaginative and individual, though each deals with a moral conundrum.

The story opens with an introduction by the author who states that he has been asked to edit the memoir of one, Howard Campbell, Jr. (this, of course, is also part of the fiction).  Vonnegut says in the introduction, “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know.  We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

We meet Howard Campbell as he awaits trial as a war criminal, in prison in Jerusalem. He is guarded by an 18 year old with whom he has struck up a friendship, and thus we gradually learn his story.  Campbell is an unassuming fellow, a playwright living in Germany, married to an actress, Helga, whom he adores.  Helga is the daughter of the Berlin Chief of Police.  The U.S. Secret Service, the OSS, decides that Campbell, because of his connections, is the perfect person to pass on information to them.  After he is recruited, he begins working with Nazi radio, broadcasting propaganda, moving in high German political circles, and passing on information to the Americans, most that he isn’t privy to.  As the Allied and Russian troops push into Berlin, Campbell’s wife disappears and is presumed dead.

We next meet Campbell 15 years later, living in Greenwich Village.  He leads a quiet, non-political life.  His chief friend is an artist living in the same building, who we later learn is working for the KGB.  It seems that both the Russians and the Israelis are interested in finding him.  Campbell seems to be a naif in the midst of a slapstick operation to capture him.  The operation is mixed in with a kooky group of American Nazis, called the Iron Guards, who regard Campbell as a great hero, and arrive on the scene ready to lionize him. The characters in this group are satirically hysterical.

Meanwhile, Campbell can’t seem to make contact with the officer who recruited him, and he is suffering from the weight of the responsibly for sending Jews to their death through his propaganda. What good is the information he helped the Americans with, if evil was caused by his actions?  This is his moral conundrum.  He makes the decision to surrender to the Israelis. The absurdity of his situation haunts him as he languishes in jail, baring his soul to his young jailer.

I read somewhere that this book was only issued in paperback, and turned out quickly as Vonnegut needed money for his growing family.  I think the book is a gem, and even these many years later, is filled with food for thought.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A LEGACY OF SPIES by John Le Carre (fiction)

I am a faithful fan of John Le Carre’s writing and was excited to learn he had another book out.  I can hardly believe that at 86, he is still turning out such brilliantly written novels.  If you haven’t read him before, this is not the book to start with.  Rather, it is last in a long line of espionage stories beginning with “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” with the unlikely-looking master spy, George Smiley, who brought us through the Cold War era right up to present day.

George Smiley has a relatively small roll in this current book, but nevertheless, he is there behind the wings still mentoring Peter Guillam, the narrator, now like Smiley, an old man. Guillam, long retired from the British Secret Service, has been commanded to London from his farm in Brittany to answer for irregularities in an old 1960s operation, known as Operation Windfall, in what was then East Berlin.  It seems that the children of two members of the Service, who lost their lives when trying to cross over the Berlin Wall, are threatening to bring the matter before Parliament.  Smiley has gone underground, and it is left to Guillam to sift through the murky past, digging up old dossiers and finding comrades, many of whom have passed on.  Memories are stirred up, most involving Alec Leamas, the covert spy who was working to find out information in the files of the dreaded East German Stasi.

Le Carre’s books don’t have a lot of fireworks and torture scenes as many thrillers do, rather they are filled with the dark angst of the characters who work in dangerous situations, often moles and double agents, who must come to grips with the shady business they are in. Le Carre is a master at creating suspense in a quiet way that is more bone chilling than any action packed movie you might see.

If you are a fan, you will not be disappointed in this latest book.  I highly recommend it for those readers already familiar with the many brilliantly written books by Le Carre. I hope it is not the last we have heard of George Smiley.

Saturday, January 6, 2018


This is an older book by Amy Tan who has become one of our most popular authors.  Having read a couple of her books, I find that they tend to follow a pattern which has been very satisfying for her readers.  What she does very well is present Chinese culture in Chinese/American families.  This usually means there is a tyrannical older mother or grandmother and younger members of the family who having been born here are trying to live like young Americans, following popular American culture.  What is not so good is that the books have familiar plots that have become somewhat tired.

Having said that, if you are a fan of Amy Tan, you are sure to enjoy this book.  Ruth is a first generation Chinese/American living in California who is ghostwriter for a publishing company of self-help books.  She lives with her partner who has two pre-teen daughters who sit around rolling their eyes and appearing bored.  The most interesting character in the novel is LuLing, Ruth’s immigrant mother.  LuLing is cranky, probably in early stage Alzheimers, and very much attached to her Chinese culture and superstitions.  The book is at its most engaging when it turns to the past and LuLing’s life in a rural mountain village.  She lived through the Japanese invasion and the Chinese Civil War.  Her mentor was a maimed woman whom she called “Precious Auntie,” whose own story plays an important part in the novel.  LuLing was sent to an orphanage run by missionaries when the war came to her village.  There is a mystery in LuLing’s past which accounts for her anger and discontent, and as her dementia seems to intensify, Ruth begins to unravel the secret of her mother’s past.

Tan writes well and parts of this books are enjoyable. The chapters dealing with modern day conflicts were less satisfying to me.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

A BOY IN WINTER by Rachel Seiffert (fiction)

Rachel Seiffert writes beautiful spare stories about the struggle of ordinary people who are faced with making moral decisions in difficult circumstances.  In her latest book, she has written about a small provincial Ukraine town in November 1941, caught in a vice between the retreating Red Army and the new Nazi occupiers.  Seifert’s own maternal grandparents were members of the Nazi Party, and she is interested in what motivates people making ethical choices.

The novel opens as the Germans have advanced into Ukraine, and on a cold gray morning they were rounding up the Jewish townspeople for evacuation. While this is the backdrop of the story, the author moves forward from here with four main characters and their struggle with conscience.  We first meet Otto Pohl, a German engineer who has been sent to the front to oversee the building of a road through the Ukrainian marshlands to advance the front. Pohl, through letters to his wife, detests the brutality of the German army, and struggles with his response to what he is witnessing.

As the Jews are being herded into a central location, two young boys slip away without a clear plan or idea of what is actually happening.  The older boy, Yankel who is 13 just knows he doesn’t want to be part of what he sees happening to his family.  He takes his very young brother with him.  As they more or less wander aimlessly through the town which is under curfew, they come across a peasant girl, Yasia, who ignorant of events, has come to town bringing apples to her uncle to sell, also in the hope of seeing her boyfriend who is a member of the provincial police.  Not realizing the boys are Jewish, presuming they are war orphans, she takes them to shelter for the night in her uncle’s barn and feeds them.  It is only when she overhears them speaking Yiddish that she realized the danger she is in for hiding them.

It isn’t long before her uncle and neighbors realize the danger they all could be in.  She is advised to leave the town and head back to her family’s farm.  Set loose, the boys follow her.  Yasia fears for her family’s safety if she brings the boys home, yet she knows she cannot desert them.  She makes the decision to head into the marshland to an isolated village where her uncle lives.  Their three day journey through the frozen swampland emphasizes the physical struggle of the journey as well as the struggle Yasia has with her conscience. The themes of loneliness and isolation occur throughout the book.

Seifert’s writing is strong and she is able to handle the sadness of people caught up in war between two enemies on either side of Ukraine in a realistic way that is not maudlin.  Her characters all have to make decisions that reveal their strength of character.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.  It is an excellent choice for reading groups.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A TALENT FOR MURDER by Andrew Wilson (Fiction/mystery)

The talented biographer, Andrew Wilson, has written a clever fictionalized mystery based on a real life occurrence in the life of the Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie.  I’m not fond of reading fictionalized stories of famous  people, but Wilson does a good job of imagining what happened to Agatha Christie in the days that she disappeared for a spell in 1926.  The real-life Christie had just discovered her husband, Archie, was having an affair with a younger woman.  As the rumor gained momentum, she left the house one day and disappeared causing a well-publicized national search.  That she had fled to the resort town of Harrogate was never really explained sufficiently to the public, and it is somehow fitting that the world’s most popular mystery writer would be the subject of a seemingly unsolved mystery.  It is a sure bet that Agatha Christie, the author of many books staring the now famous Hercule Poirot and the almost as famous Miss Marple, is known the world over.

In Wilson's account, written in a style not unlike Christie’s herself, we find a story full of twists and turns and red herrings, as well as a bumbling pesky reporter and a clueless chief inspector, hot on the trail of false leads.  Throw in a statistical and sinister character named Dr. Patrick Kurs and his invalid wife, and you will recognize stock Christie characters primed to move the action forward.  Besides these characters, there is a handsome young man who just may be working for the Secret Service and his girlfriend who gets caught up in the story when she poses as a reporter hot on Christie’s tail.

Wilson seems to have fun with Christie’s story, and has written an entertaining book which posits a fictional explanation of what could have happened to Agatha Christie when she went missing those many years ago.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

WHAT REMAINS by Carole Radziwill (non-fic/memoir)

This is yet another book on the Kennedy family, but told from a different perspective.  I picked up the book at a library sale and saw that it had spent some time on the best seller list.  Radziwill is a good writer; she had been trained as a reporter and her writing displays that skill.  She tells her story of a young girl brought up on the wrong side of the railway tracks in a large dysfunctional family, but a loving one.  As a child she was allowed to run wild with her cousins, and saw a side of life that many children don’t see.  While Radziwill was not exactly a Cinderella, she did meet her prince, eventually swept him off his feet and married him.  But they did not live happily ever after.

Shortly after their marriage, Anthony Radziwill is faced with the fight of his young life against the cancer which eventually kills him.  The book tells of the struggle of both Anthony and Carole to overcome daunting odds.  Anthony was the son of Lee Radziwill, Jackie Kennedy’s sister, and best friend of his cousin, John Kennedy.  Carole writes beautifully of their close friendship, and with her own close friendship with Carolyn Bessette Kennedy.  Added to the sadness and bad fortune that beset the Kennedy family,  is the story of the tragic last flight of John and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. On the night their plane plunged into the water off Martha’s Vineyard, they were on their way to meet the Radziwills who were staying in the Kennedy home on the island.

While all the money in the world did not save these loving cousins from their tragic fate, Radziwill handles the story with compassion and bravery.  Ultimately the book is a sad one, but there are many uplifting moments of resiliency and courage, friendship and love.  I recommend the book as a different and intimate look into lives of privilege and fame.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

BURY YOUR DEAD by Louise Penny (fiction/mystery)

Louise Penny is another in a long line of excellent female crime-fiction writers.  And this book does not disappoint.  This is the first Louise Penny book I have read, but it is number six in a series starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. All told, she has written 13 mysteries which have won numerous awards.  Penny has won the prestigious Agatha Award for best mystery novel of the year five times, and the equally impressive Anthony Award for best novel also five times.

Gamache is the head of Surete du Quebec’s homicide squad and in this book, he is taking a much needed break from the stress of a previous case involving terrorists who killed one of his squad. He is taking a holiday in Quebec City and staying with an old friend and mentor.  Gamache is wrestling with feeling responsible for the death of one of his own.  However as often happens with talented people who are noted for their ability, Gamache is soon recognized, and asked to help solve a local murder in Quebec City.  A controversial amateur archeologist is found dead in the sub-basement of the Literary and Historical Society.  The dead man was compulsively following a lead while trying to solve the 400 year-old mystery of where Samuel de Champlain is buried after his death in 1635.  As Gamache delves deeper into the mystery of the archeologist he also becomes ensnared in the mystery surrounding Champlain.

Along with the crime in Quebec City, there is also a sub-plot in the book which harks back to a mysterious death in a previous book by Perry.  It appears the case in the small village of Three Pines has been reopened, and Gamache’s partner Gabi is working on new evidence.  The story then goes back and forth between the two connected plot lines.

Perry is an outstanding writer and in this novel she introduces the reader to some of the fascinating  history of Quebec and the tensions between the British and French descendants who live there. In an afterward in the novel the author writes why she loves the old city of Quebec, and ends with:
“This is a very special book to me, on so many levels, as I hope you’ll see.   Like the rest of the Chief Inspector Ganache books, ‘Bury Your Dead’ is not about death, but about life.  And the need to both respect the past and let it go.”

I highly recommend this book to all readers.