Monday, December 30, 2013

THE LOWLAND by Jhumpa Lahari (fic)

Jhumpa Lahari is a past Pulitzer Prize winner and The Lowland like many of her novels deals with Indian immigrants adjusting to life in America.  Lahari writes beautifully expressive prose.  Her descriptions are so complete that the reader is immersed in the settings which play an important part in filling out her characters. She is also perfectly attuned to the joys and sadness in family relationships.  This novel moves back and forth in time from the late 1960s to present day, which makes it difficult to write about the plot without giving too much information.

Essentially this is the story of two brothers, Udayan and Subhash who grow up in Calcutta.  During their university years, there is a radical movement called Naxalism, inspired by the writings of Mao, that has taken hold of many students who cannot help but see the injustice of the poverty which surrounds them in this overcrowded city.  Udayan, the more daring and idealistic brother becomes an active participant in the communist movement, while Subhash the studious and more serious brother continues to focus on his goal of becoming an oceanographer.  Lahari does a good job of presenting the dynamics in a traditional Indian family and the breakdown caused by Udayan's terrorist radicalism.

Subhash in pursuit of a doctorate, moves to Rhode Island to complete his studies.  While Subhash is away, Udayan, in Calcutta, marries a modern very independent student named Gauri. She is a great disappointment to his parents who believe in arranged marriages.

 Having grown up in Rhode Island, I found Lahari's descriptions of the coastline and nearby scenery spot on.  I know exactly each area she presents to the reader, the University, the watch tower, the beaches and ports for working fishermen, the small homes and churches along the coast.  I felt right at home, just as I imagine her descriptions of Calcutta are equally accurate.

Subhash has a sweet affair, his first, with a local woman whom he meets on the beach.  He is devastated when she returns to her husband.  Lahari treats this relationship with all the tenderness that is absent in his later relationship with Gauri.  Gauri is an interesting character in the beginning of the book, when she is a young student in love with Udayan.  She seems real in those moments, but as the story moves on, Gauri seems to lose her humanity and certainly the reader's sympathy.  She is portrayed as selfish and cruel, a cardboard figure.  When Gauri arrives in Rhode Island, she is carrying Udayan's child.  After her daughter's birth, Gauri pursues her own path and eventually abandons both Bela, her daughter, and Subhash who brings up Bela with tender care as his own child.  Bela only discovers her real father as a young adult, and the consequences change the direction of her life. 

While The Lowland is written with expression and attention to detail, it is not Lahiri's best work.  I enjoy her short stories and especially liked The Namesake. This book would have been more enjoyable if the reader could have a clearer understanding of Guari's motives, as much of the plot hinges on her relationship with the other characters in the book.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

COURTESANS by Katie Hickman (non-fic)

This is another find from the remainders table of the local bookstore.  It tells the story of five women spanning the years from the 18th trough the 20th century. These women were all very different personalities with differing reasons for falling into the life of being kept by rich men, but all needed money.  All lived before the era when females could be self-sufficient.  One of the few ways open for them to retain some independence was the world of the demi-monde.  None of these women were common prostitutes.  Each was unique enough to attract the notice of rich and powerful men.  These men were themselves locked in loveless arranged marriages.  The book is an interesting look into Georgian, Regency and Victorian society.  In the early days of the demi-monde, these women achieved a cult status of popularity that would rival pop stars and actresses of today. They were shown off as arm candy by their gentlemen lovers. Their names were universally recognized, and people fought for a sight of these glittering and richly clad creatures.  By Victorian times, their status had changed, and they lived a more secret life, hidden away, often masquerading as married or widowed women. 

The most interesting life of the five belonged to Elizabeth Armistead (1750-1842).  She began her career as a courtesan in her youth.  She was intelligent and dignified.  Eventually she caught the eye of Charles James Fox the brilliant politician in the court of George III.  They fell truly in love, had a great romance and ended their life married, very happily as all accounts would have it.  She was greatly loved by the aristocratic members of the Fox family and honored by their descendants.  The book is an interesting study of social mores and attitudes spanning the years of these women's lives.

THE PATRIARCH by David Nasaw (non-fic)

The sub-title of this biography is The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, an apt title as Joe Kennedy did indeed live through turbulent times which affected both his country and his personal life.  The story of the Kennedy family and the hubris of its patriarch is well known;  yet none of the family is as fascinating as Joseph Kennedy.  Shakespeare could have written a great tragedy based on his life.  David Nasaw, who has written an excellent biography of Randolph Hearst ( a great friend of Kennedy through the war years), has again written a masterful study of a complex and puzzling man.  Nasaw's hefty book covers every aspect of Kennedy's life in an objective manner,
the good, the bad and the ugly.  Joe Kennedy is no easy study, but he left his mark on the family and country and there is plenty of material from which to draw.

Joe Kennedy was born in East Boston in 1888, the grandson of Irish immigrants. The ward politics in the Irish ghetto, as well as the prejudice of  Boston Yankees against the Irish, shaped Kennedy's future and his overriding ambition.  His determination to defeat all odds helped make him a man of many contradictions.  He made his money as a banker, an entrepreneur, a Wall Street mogul, and a Hollywood producer.  Her was a womanizer, yet a loving father and family man who taught his children the value of family ties and loyalty.  He amassed a huge fortune that allowed him to realize the ambitions he bred in his sons and daughters.  Kennedy was a life-long Democrat, yet a conservative business tycoon.  In present day, he would no doubt be a Republican.  Kennedy made huge profits (contrary to rumor, he was not a bootlegger) by investing in property and turning it over quickly.  Much of his business dealings and insider trading would be illegal today.

Joe Kennedy was a micro-manager in every aspect of his life.  He was a strict father, yet his children were independent thinkers, all far more liberal than their father, and they weren't afraid to disagree with him, sometimes incurring his wrath.  Kennedy had a fierce temper and a short fuse, he was a bit of a blow-hard, yet had an easy way with people and a great sense of humor. He was a manipulator of others, but was never to get his way with Franklin Roosevelt.  His love/hate relationship with the President was one of mutual respect and dislike. 

Kennedy was a disaster as Ambassador to England in the years leading up to World War II.  He hated Churchill and admired Neville Chamberlain, and later, Anthony Eden.  Kennedy was an isolationist, and his misreading of Hitler was puzzling. He did a lot of damage to America's image in Europe until he was recalled by Roosevelt. By that time no one in the State Department was listening to anything he said.  Most of the State Department business was conducted of his head. His opinions were studiously ignored on almost every issue. As an intelligent man, one wonders how he could have been so wrong in his analysis of events leading up to the war.

Besides his years as ambassador, the most interesting parts of the book are those describing his relationship with his family.  His love of his children is clear, but his relationship with his wife Rose, remains cloudy.  We know she was a devout Catholic and enjoyed all the privileges that money brings, but after all, Rose and Joe did not spend much time together until after his stroke.  As is well known, the drama and tragedy of the final years of his life would fill a book of its own.  He outlived four of his nine children.  He died in 1969, heartbroken and bereft despite his material comfort and great wealth.

The Patriarch is an outstanding biography that I heartily recommend to those interested not only in the history of  the rich era Joseph Kennedy's life encompassed, but also to those interested in the tragedy of human relationships and family dynamics.  There is a wealth of material for book clubs to discuss and ponder over.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

DREAM WHEN YOU'RE FEELING BLUE by Elizabeth Berg (fic)

This is a sweet little book for light reading.  It is not chic fic, but it is one that will appeal to women rather then men.  The story takes place in Chicago during WWII.  The main characters are three sisters, Kitty, Louise and Tish Heaney, members of a large Irish family.  Of course they have boyfriends who go overseas to fight and the story centers around family relationships and the girls relationships with these men.  Elizabeth Berg excels in her depiction of the war era.  She manages to allow the reader to enter that era, take a look around and even recognize the products and icons of the times.  She presents a very accurate picture of growing up in the 40s, and if the reader was alive then or had parents who were, they will find themselves in familiar territory.  This is the time when meat was rationed, and people made do with mock casseroles, scraps were saved, people walked or took the bus and danced to the music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.  Women began to enter the workforce and to wear slacks, and no plastic was in sight.

Naturally the sisters are beautiful, and the story is a bit too pat, but it is nice read for a snowy afternoon and a nostalgic trip to a bygone era.

Monday, December 9, 2013

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K Dick (fic)

Philip K Dick is characterized as a writer of science fiction, which is not a genre that I generally read.  This book was recommended by one near and dear to me, so I approached it with an open mind.  I knew it had one the Hugo Award the year it was written, and I know Dick has a huge following.  A number of his books have been made into movies, such as: Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report.  I expect if you are a fan of his, you have read this book, as it is one of his most famous and is itself about to be made into a movie for the ScFi channel. 

At any rate, for the rest of us who are not familiar with his work, this is an interesting book which is more like the Twilight Zone than a trip on the Starship Enterprise.  My main issue with the book is that Dick's characters lack depth.  It is difficult to care about them as their inner life is so hidden.  They are rather representative of ideas, each with a role representing differing political ideologies.  These characters are full of anxieties and foreboding, carrying the reader along with them. You just know something bad is going to happen.  The basic plot centers on the premise that the Germans and Japanese have won World War II and have taken over the Western world.  The few Jews who survive are either in hiding or living under assumed names and identities.  The US has been divided with Germany controlling the Eastern half and Japan the Western.  Of the two, the Japanese are clearly the more benevolent and are themselves threatened by Germany's growing power.  The story takes place in 1962.

The author was deep into Taoism in his lifetime, and it shows in the writing.  His characters have to wrestle with what it means to be human and have free will.  His main characters Nobuske Tagomi and Juliana Frink worry about this, yet both seem to change in moments when faced with stressful situations.  They become almost robot-like in their responses.  This is the weakness in the story.  How is it that their human nature is so altered almost to the point of insanity?  Are drugs doing this?  Are they being controlled in some other way? 

There is also a secondary counter-story within the novel.  It is an underground book with a cult following called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which details a parallel world where the Germans and Japanese have lost the war to the west.

All this may sound quite confusing, but it is not once you get into the book.  I have read that Dick was a believer in the I Ching and used the throwing of the stalks to determine the outcome of the plot.  He certainly has his characters do so.  Whether he did so or not, we will never know as he died some time ago. 

There is no doubt the story and the moral ambiguities it presents is an interesting and imaginative one.  If you enjoy science fiction and haven't read this book, I would recommend you do so, or you might just like to try a different type of fiction for a change, as I did.  It did not, however, make a convert of me.

Friday, November 29, 2013

THE STORYTELLER by Jodi Picoult (fic)

Jodi Picoult is a storyteller herself, and if you read her books you will find yourself turning pages becoming immersed in the story.  That is the best I can say of her style of writing.  She generally chooses a social issue and builds her story around it.  I have only read one other novel by her, so I should not make broad generalities about her writing.  As regards this book, it is long, and the story meanders all over the place.  The characters are not well developed, and Sage the center of the story, is not particularly likable.  The plot is filled with coincidences that are improbable. 

Sage Singer is a Jewish girl living in a small town where she meets Josef Weber, an old German man who frequents the bakery where she works.  Sage is scarred mentally and physically by an automobile accident and has isolated herself emotionally from those around her.  Weber confesses to Sage that he is living under a false name, and that he is responsible for numerous deaths and atrocities committed at Auschwitz during World War II.  He asks Sage to help him die, as he finds it too painful to live with his guilt. It so happens that Sage has a grandmother, Minka, who was a prisoner at Auschwitz.  There is a long middle section that tells the grandmother's story, and that is the only interesting part of the novel.

The rest of the novel borders on the ridiculous.  There is a story of a vampire embedded within, which seems to have no connection with Sage, until the reader discovers that the grandmother, Minka, kept a notebook in which she wrote this other story.  Bringing this vampire story into the book, doesn't make much sense.  Further it seems silly to suppose that a hardened and vicious SS officer would have any interest in keeping Minka alive to find out what happens next in her writing. 

Sage's relationship with a married funeral director and a subsequent relationship with a government agent who tracks down war criminals are contrived to fit the plot line.  Neither are well-developed or have the depth to add to the story of Sage's relationship with Josef.

I cannot recommend this book unless the reader is an ardent fan of Picoult and is comfortable with the many contrivances of the plot line.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline (f)

At various times in the history of New York City, 10,000 to 30,000 abandoned and orphaned children were living on the Streets of the city.  There were no social programs and no labor laws to address this problem.  Between 1854 and 1929, 200,000 of these children were put on what was referred to as Orphan Trains and sent west.  They ranged from infants to 14 years of age. 

Christina Kline has written a novel about these children, based on her study of the era and conversations with some of those still alive.  Her story takes place in 1929, the last year of this practice.  The story of Niamh, a young Irish immigrant who loses her family in a fire, alternates with that of a teenage girl currently living in Maine. This girl, named Molly Ayer, part Penobscot Indian, is also an orphan.  Her life becomes entwined with that of the now 91 year old Niamh.  As their friendship grows, the reader learns their dual stories and how they come to affect each other's lives.

Through the eyes of Niamh, the reader learns of the frightening and often humiliating circumstances to which these children were subjected.  As the trains moved westward, the children were put on view, reminiscent of slave auctions, in the various cities the trains passed through.  Niamh is placed with two families, who change her name to one more pronounceable, before she finds some happiness with a third couple.  The last family give her the name Vivian which remains with her for the rest of her life.  Vivian's history is not unusual for an orphan sent west.  Most ended up on farms where they were expected to do the work of an adult.  Others met more horrific fates.

Vivian eventually makes a comfortable life for herself, and it is in Maine that her life intersects with the sullen teen that Molly has become.  Their relationship which is rewarding for both is at the center of the novel.  Kline has written an interesting book which sheds light on a little-known topic in the history of our country.  Her characters are believable and well-drawn, made more so by the knowledge that this hard and unforgiving life actually happened to a large number of children, before laws were changed to stop the practice.  I recommend this book as a good story with an accurate historical background.

Friday, November 22, 2013

CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell (fic)

David Mitchell wrote Cloud Atlas in 2004 and it has been recently re-published because of interest in the movie based on the novel.  I am a huge fan of David Mitchell, but almost passed over this book because of the conflicting reviews I read when it came out. There was no in between, either the reader hated it or loved it.  Well, I am in the latter category. If you enjoyed Jacob de Zoet you will most likely enjoy this book as well.  Mitchell has chosen to tell six separate stories in the novel which together cover about 1000 years.  Each story is told in a different voice, yet all are connected like a Russian nesting doll.  The author's point is to show how we are connected to the past and the future and how history repeats itself.

Mitchell has chosen a pattern of two stories in the past, two in the present and two in the future.  These stories are not in chronological order, though the reader conceivably could follow each story in its thread before turning to the others.  Mitchell has said, My idea was to write a novel whose narratives would be returned to and completed in reverse order.  So, the first story which takes place in 1831 is also the last to be concluded.  Our first narrator is Adam Ewing, an adventurous trader who is on a ship ferrying goods from New Zealand back to England.  His life becomes entangles with a Moriori native and a nefarious doctor, a quack and thief.

The second tale takes place between the World Wars, and is told by Robert Frobisher, an Evelyn Waugh type character who is a bisexual young composer working under an unpleasant mentor in Zedelghem in Belgian.

The third tale takes place in California in the 1970s and our narrator is a reporter named Louis Rey.  Her story is sort of an Elroy Leonard type tale involving nuclear power and crooked corporate heads who are up to nothing good.  She becomes a target when she discovers their motives and dishonesty.

The fourth story is in contemory times and is presented in a the farcical manner of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Tim Cavendish through his own greed and stupidity finds himself committed in a home for elderly dementia patients.  This middle tale provides a good laugh as he and his elderly companions plot and effect their escape.

The fifth story takes place in a distopian future much like that of Blade Runner.  It is set in Korea where a genetically engineered fabricant named Sonmi escapes her fate in a crazy world run by corporate empires. 

The sixth tale takes place in a post-apocalyptic world set on the big island of Hawaii.  Small pockets of humanity exist separated from each other.  They live in tribes and bring us back to our original story of the Moriori.  They have little memory of the world of the past or of previous learning and inventions which have all been lost. 

Finally the book ends with our Ewing character just as it began.  As you progress through the book, you begin to see how these characters are connected.  It is a fascinating, imaginative journey through time.  I loved this book, but it will not be to everyone's liking.  I watched the movie when I finished the book.  The book and movie compliment each other, but as is often the case, the book is superior to the movie, though I enjoyed seeing the actors showing up as a character in each story.  If you would like to read an imaginative and entertaining ride through history, I highly recommend this book.

THE HORSE THE WHEEL AND LANGUAGE by David W. Anthony (non-fic)

The sub-title of this book is, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World.  It is a dense, meaty tome full of fascinating evidence and valuable charts and illustrations, all to support Anthony's central thesis that the origins of our language lie in the vast steppes of southern Ukraine and Russia.  It is pretty well accepted that the progenitors of our western culture migrated from this area, but is this also where our language has its roots?  If you read this book, you will be convinced it is so, as Anthony does a masterly job of providing evidence to support this. Along with the domestication of the horse and the invention of the wheel eventually came carts for travelling distances and chariots for defence and attack.  This early language is called Proto-Indo-European which followed pre-Proto-Indo-European. It came into general usage about 3500 BCE.  Linguists have been able to reconstruct the basic forms and meanings of thousands of words that are used throughout the world today.  Indo-European is the mother tongue of about half of the world's population today, able to be traced back though Greek, Latin and Sanskrit to our nomadic Indo-European ancestors.  Anthony does an excellent job of helping neophytes like me to understand how our languages are related and how linguists go about tracing common sounds in the various sister languages back to our mother-language.

There is much to absorb in this scholarly work, and it takes time to digest the research and scholarship that the author put into this study. It is a book that I read over a long period of time, taking it up when the mood for learning struck me.  Anthony includes a wealth of archaeological findings to support his work.   If you have an interest in archaeology and language, this is a wonderful reference book for your home library. It would be a treat to take a course on language from David Anthony; the next best thing is reading his book.

Monday, October 28, 2013


Linda Grant has woven a story of a young girl from a Jewish/Hungarian immigrant family growing up in post war London.  Grant exposes her characters in rich detail through descriptions of the clothes on their backs.
The girl, Vivian Kovak, grows up lonely and isolated by her timid parents from normal friendships and childhood experiences.  Her parents never speak of their past, live a solitary and frugal life, and never tell Vivian that she is Jewish.  They are so fearful of the past that they have her baptised in the Church of England. 

In 1963 when Vivian was ten years old a flashy stranger bearing gifts arrives at their door with a blowzy woman.  Vivian's father, Ervin, appears to know the man and in a fit of temper chases the twosome away. Vivian is left puzzled with only her imagination to answer her many questions.  The man is Sandor, Ervin's estranged brother, who after horrible wartime experiences, has made his way to London.  Since he is never again mentioned in the Kovak's household, it only some years later, when his face is splashed across the news, that Vivian finds out he is her uncle. 

Sandor forging ties with the London underbelly had become a notorious slum lord.  The newspapers portray him as a predator preying on the poor and downtrodden West Indian immigrants, and he is arrested and jailed.  In an author's note, we learn Sandor was modeled on Peter Rachman, a notorious London character of the 70s.  Sandor is insulted to learn reporters have compared him to the equally repugnant Kray brothers.

In the meantime, Vivian grows up, attends university and marries.  The husband she never stops loving, dies in a freak accident on their honeymoon, and Vivian spirals down in a depression that leads her back to the humdrum and colorless existence in her parents drab apartment.  However, she longs to escape this life, and by change one day her path crosses that of Sandor who has been released from jail. He has lost his fortune and flashy lifestyle but still owns an apartment building.  Vivian and Sandor become aware of their relationship, but it is never brought out into the open or acknowledged by either. Sandor wishes to write his memoirs in order to clear his name, and Vivian agrees to transcribe them.  In this way, she learns her family history which she had been longing to know.  She is fascinated by descriptions of her parents in their youth in Budapest and learning about the war years never mentioned in her home.

Clothes continue to be used to flesh out our images of the characters.  Vivian becomes involved with a tenant of Sandor's and she goes through a punk stage as she tries on different identities. This is the era of skinheads and the National Front in Britain.  Vivian joins an anti-Nazi group and actively campaigns against violence. Sandor has a West Indian girlfriend whose elegant dress is artfully described; she and Vivian eye each other with mutual distrust. Sandor continues to favor east end chic.

In the end the book is mainly about a young woman finding the identity which had been denied her by her parents. She does this as her odd relationship with her wayward uncle grows.  Grant does an excellent job of showing a different side of swinging London, the poor and disenfranchised.  She has written a captivating story which was short-listed for the Man Booker prize. I recommend it as an interesting read of relationships and human connections.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

DANCING TO THE PRECIPICE by Caroline Moorehead (non-fic)

Using direct quotes from letters and a meticulously kept diary, Caroline Moorehead has written a thoroughly enjoyable biography of Lucie De La Tour Du Pin.  I loved this book and admire both its subject and the author who makes Lucie come so alive to the reader.  As her name is such a mouthful, I will refer to her as Lucie.  She was born in 1770 to an aristocratic family with noble ancestors from Ireland and France.  Her fascinating memoirs, published by a grandson, have never been out of print, and it is no wonder as her intellegent observations give a flavor and insight into all that she was eyewitness to during her full life. 

Lucie was born in an imposing house in the Faubourg St. Germain in Paris.  Her father, Arthur Dillon was a brave and honest military officer who fought with Lafayette in the American revolution. He was later guillotined. Her mother who died young, was a friend of Marie Antoinette, and when Lucie was old enough, she too was one of a group of young aristocrats who surrounded the Queen.  At 19 she wrote, "We were laughing and dancing our way to the precipice."

Born in.....the dying days of the ancien regime, into a family of liberal aristocrats with many links to Versailles and the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, she survived the French Revolution, which saw many of her family and friends die or lose all they possessed.  Escaping to America, she and her husband bought a farm and became increasingly concerned about the injustices of slavery.  Later she lived through the eras of Napoleon and the restoration of the French kings, Louis XVIII, Charles X and Louis Philippe.  At the time of her death in 1853 Napoleon III had just ascended the throne.  Almost nothing of the world into which she was born remained, neither the grandeur, nor the idea of absolute monarchy, nor the privileges; but she herself was singularly unchanged.

After her mother's untimely death Lucie was raised by her abusive maternal grandmother, Madame de Rothe, who was carrying on an affair with the Archbishop of Toulouse.  It is a credit to Lucie's character that she refused to marry the unsuitable men her grandmother put forward.  Lucie stood her ground and confided to her diary that though she hadn't met him, she felt drawn to Frederic de Gouvernet a soldier who fought alongside her father.  Her marriage to Frederic was romantic and  thoroughly happy. She had met her soul mate, and they defied the odds surviving the purge that killed the majority of French nobility.  They stayed married for 50 years, until his death.

During the French revolution Lucie and Frederic and their children lived in poverty in a family chateau in Bordeaux.  It wasn't long before this also became too dangerous, and  in 1794 they made a daring escape aboard an American merchant ship.  The account of this is as exciting as anything in a modern thriller. In America they were able to purchase a farm on the Hudson River where they became friends with the Schuylers and Van Rensselaers.  Their settling in New York was greatly aided by Talleyrand, who had himself escaped the guillotine.  Talleyrand was a wiley old fox who managed to survive all the subsequent changes of governments in France, and he remained a loyal friend to Lucie and Frederic. 

While in New York, Lucie became a real farm worman.  Both she and Frederic worked hard in the fields, and Lucie cooked and made all the clothes for the family.  She had ten pregancies, only six children surviving, and only one, her youngest son outlived her. After Robespierre's death, Lucie and her family were able to return to France and claim their properties.  Unfortunately they once again had to flee to England when the political situation heated up.  When Napoleon came into power, they  again returned to France and  Frederic was given several diplomatic postings. 

Lucie gives us not only an accurate accounting of the frantic shifts in the government of France, but she is also an entertaining reconteur of the society and mores of her lifetime.  Her sharp eye missed nothing.  The list of historical characters who passed in and out of her life is mind-boggling and she is a valuable resource for an understanding of the volatile times in which she lived.

I highly recommend this book to all readers who love history and appreciate an entertaining look at an era which saw great changes in France and ushered in the modern age  It is told by one who managed to survive and have as much excitement as a character in a modern adventure story. This would be a terrific book for a reading group, it is full of history, gossip, style and a life time of cheating death.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

LIVE BY NIGHT by Dennis Lehane (fic)

Dennis Lehane has written a number of excellent thrillers, most set in the Irish south end of Boston.  Several popular movies have been made from these novels.  I have enjoyed reading Lehane's books set in Boston.  He has filled them with exciting plots and a good deal of history spanning several eras.

His latest book, Live by Night, begins in Boston, but a lot of the action takes place in Tampa, Florida.  It is 1926, the jazz age is in full swing, and there is big money to be made in bootlegging. The main character, Joe Coughlin, son of a Boston police chief, is a tough street kid, a punk who makes some bad choices and compounds them by sloppy planning.  As the story opens, he gets himself into  trouble by daring to rob a speakeasy belonging to a local crime boss named Alert White.  Not only is this a mistake, but he complicates it by becoming hopelessly infatuated with White's moll, Emma Gould. 

Retribution is not far behind and after a severe beating by White's thugs, Coughlin lands in the notorious Charlestown prison.  As in all prison stories, he needs a protector.  In steps the powerful Mafia don, Maso Pescatore who is also serving a sentence. 

When released from prison, Joe is sent to Tampa by Pescatore to head up a bootlegging operation.  At this time Ybor City, the center of cigar manufacturing, is a dangerous place to set up business.  Coughlin teams up with a local Cuban crime organization and business begins to boom, until he is controlling not only the corrupt city officials, but the illegal liquor business all along the Gulf Coast.  He also falls in love with Graciela, a beautiful Hispanic woman.  His success begins to cut into that conducted by the northern crime bosses and Albert White reappears.  White and Coughlin share a mutual respect, despite their hatred of each other.  Violence erupts with a lot of blood is shed between the rival gangs.

We know crime doesn't pay, so you can fill in the rest with your imagination.  I did not enjoy this book as I had Lehane's Boston thrillers.  It lacks the depth of the characters of previous books.  Joe Coughlin seems shallowly drawn compared to the angst of some of the main characters in earlier books.  There is more violence than plot depth, and the love relationships seem corny.  That is not to say it is poorly written, it just didn't hold my interest.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

RUNAWAY HORSES by Yukio Mishima (fic)

Yukio Mishima is one of the great Japanese writers of fiction.  He ended his own life by committing ritual suicide, seppuku. Runaway Horses, written in 1973, is the second book in the tetrology The Sea of Fertility. The Eastern philosophy of the purity of the Samurai ritual of suicide is at the center of this novel.  While this is the second book of a series, you do not have to have read the first to understand or enjoy this novel.  The story in the first book, Spring Snow, is about a young man of 20, an idealist and romantic who falls in love with a woman who is promised in marriage to a prince.  In the end this fragile young man pines away his life through the loss of his love.  Runaway Horses is about his best friend, Honda who is now 38 years old, a judge in Osaka.  The story takes place in 1932 and 33, an era in which the seeds of the fanaticism, which led to Japan's role in World War II, are planted.

Honda looks back on his youth and friendship with Kendo as an ideal that he cannot recapture.  Early in the book he states, "How oddly situated a man is apt to find himself at age thirty-eight!  His youth belongs to the distant past.  Yet the period of memory beginning with the end of youth and extending to the present has left him not a single vivid impression.  And therefore he persists in feeling that nothing more than a fragile barrier separates him from his youth.  He is forever hearing with the utmost clarity the sounds of this neighboring domain, but there is no way to penetrate the barrier."  This melancholic mood of Honda causes him to become involved in the life of the young hero of this book, Isao, who at first appears to be a reincarnation of his beloved friend. Isao even has three moles on the side of his body exactly as did Kendo. 

The Buddhist idea of rebirth is quite different than the Indian doctrine.  Isao, rather than being Kendo, is carrying the moral burden of the past that has remained unresolved.  Isao is rigid and idealistic and obsessed with the Shinto doctrine of the purity of motive.  During this time in history, Japan was open to Western ideas of capitalism and big business.  The captains of industry and commerce were amassing great fortunes, while the poor farmers and workers were on the brink of starvation.  Japan was slipping further into debt and carrying huge deficits, not so different than the situation many countries today are dealing with.

Isao, enamoured with Emperor worship and the purity of the Japanese race sees in these oligarchs of industry the end of the Japanese traditional way of life.  After reading a treatise, League of the Divine Wind, he gathers a group of 20 young men (students at his father's school) in a secret club to ideally bring awareness to the Japanese citizens and nobility of the dangers of corrupt Western ideas.  His plan is to assassinate the most influential industrial leaders and then to commit ritual suicide.  The plan fails through a double betrayal. Honda's life becomes entwined with Isao's, as he gives up his judgeship, to act as Isao's lawyer.

Mishima is a beautiful writer and it is a credit to his translator, Michael Gallagher, that the beauty of the language is preserved in the translation.  Integral to the book is an understanding of Japan's place in the world at that time in history, and the state of the weakened monarchy, along with the rise in popularity of the Shinto religion as a counterweight to Buddhist philosophy.  There are wonderful descriptions of a way of life soon to be lost, and the importance of ritual in Japanese thinking.  It is interesting that the history of that era mirrors much that is happening in the world today including out-of-control national debts and financial crisis.  While Isao is considered a hero with pure ideals, the West may be inclined to consider him a terrorist akin to today's suicide bombers. Isao appears to be a reflection of the author's philosophy, given his subsequent suicide. 

 Readers may find this book a grim reminder of the dangers of inflexibility, just as Honda warns Isao when they meet for a second time, after Isao had given the League of Divine Wind to Honda to read, hoping he had found a kindred soul in an older mentor.  I was taken with the insight into a period of Japan's history that is not much discussed, and its lead-up to ideas that influenced Japan's entry into World War II.  It is a skillfully written account of a young man's coming of age at a time when the frustrations of idealism were pitted against a reality marching into the modern world.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

SWEET TOOTH by Ian McEwan (fic)

Ian McEwan is a prolific writer, and each of his novels has an interesting and different plot.  His latest book, Sweet Tooth, is yet again a different story from any of his previous work.  This book has gotten cracker-jack reviews, but I did not enjoy it as much as some of his other novels.  His main character is a young girl named Serena Frome, a recent graduate of Cambridge University. Serena in the present day is reminiscing of events which took place 40 years previously. From this point on, the story is placed in London of the 1970s.  Serena is the daughter of an ambitious but distant mother and an Anglican bishop father who takes no interest in the lives of his two daughters. 

Serena seems strangely naive for a young woman living in swinging London, an era when women were exercising their new found liberation. As the story opens she is having an affair with a much older man, her Cambridge history tutor.  She passively acquiesces to her mother's demands that she study maths as "she has a talent for numbers."  Serena wanted to study English, and she quickly discovered at Cambridge that she is only a mediocre math student. She graduated from University without the sought after First that she might have had a shot at, if she had read English as she had wished.  Fleeing to London after an unhappy ending to her love affair, she is recruited for MI5 by her ex-lover who himself is running from a shady past.

Serena acts passively and dreamy as she drifts in and out of scenes and schemes put together by the spooks of MI5.  One odd scheme is to recruit writers by offering writing grants to young authors who might have a more mainstream bent, as a countermeasure to the popular left leaning writers.  Serena is ordered to offer one of these grants to Tom Haley, a writer and lecturer at Sussex University, a school she would rather have attended than Cambridge.  The grants are set up through a phony cultural organization funded by the secret service.

So begins a tissue of lies and intrigue, the action picks up and the story now becomes interesting.  Serena's relationship with Tom deepens.  It seems he also is keeping secrets.  Other minor characters enter the picture and muddy the waters further.  All this leads to an ending that is unexpected as the reader tries to determine truth from subterfuge. 

All this makes for a fun read constructed with a clever plot and a good dose of mystery.

Monday, September 16, 2013

FLIGHT BEHAVIOR by Barbara Kingsolver (fic)

If you have read Barbara Kingsolver before, then you know she is a beautiful writer of descriptive prose, as well as the inner life of her characters.  Nature figures largely in her novels, as in Lacuna which won the Orange Prize, or humanitarian disasters as in The Poisonwood Bible. 

In Flight Behavior we meet a character with the delightful name of Dellarobia Turnbow.  She and her family live in southern Appalachia in the small town of Featherstone, where life in this rural community centers around farming and church gatherings.  The Turnbows own a sheep farm on which they are barely eking out a living.  Kingsolver paints vivid word pictures of the difficult life of a sheep farmer through the sheering, sorting wool and the birthing of lambs.  Dellarobia's days are filled with farm duties, cooking, knitting, raising her children and dealing with cranky in laws and a lunky husband who is devoid of imagination. She was 17 and pregnant when she married Cub Turnbow and began a life that was completely different than one she had imagined. Dellarobia is the heart and soul of her family.  She is also intelligent and curious, traits that have been passed down to her young son who, like Dellarobia has a fierce interest in the nature which is part of their everyday life.

The story opens with Dellarobia climbing the mountain behind the farm for an illicit rendezvous.  Her heart wasn't really in this meeting, and when it doesn't pan out we feel relief along with her.  Instead, she sees an amazing, and for her a life changing, sight.  Clustered in the trees as far as the eye can see are thousands and thousands of Monarch butterflies which the locals call Orange Billys, an old term named for the English King, William, and the Orangemen of Protestant Ulster.  Somehow the butterflies have lost their home in Mexico to mudslides and floods where they had migrated for eons.  Now they have alighted on the mountains and hills of the Turnbow land.  Kingsolver shows us  the different attitudes and reactions in this small and unsophisticated community.  Some think Dellarobia was sent this gift from God, some think the family should make money by encouraging busloads of tourists.  A clueless female reporter hypes the feel-good story while ignoring the environmental disaster that it really is.

Dellarobia's life is changed forever when a scientist, Ovid Byron, who has devoted his life to the study of Monarchs, comes to town with his associates and students to study climate change and its effects on these unfortunate and beautiful insects.  Dellarobia's interest is peaked, and suddenly her life is no longer full of a dull routine as she discovers the magic of scientific study.  At the same time she is moving in a direction away from her husband and toward a future she had only dreamed about.  Still, nature is not finished with this family or the butterflies, who are fighting to survive a winter colder than any they had lived through in Mexico.  It is a season of punishing rains with disastrous results for the family and the town. 

Kingsolver is wonderful in her descriptions of farm life, small town life, and the nature of her characters.  The book is filled with people who have lived through tough times, but continue meeting life head on.  It is not unusual these days, to see the havoc wreaked by natural calamities, almost on a daily basis.  We can feel for these sturdy and plain speaking people, and hope only for the best for them.  Kingsolver is a gifted writer who has appeal for all interested in good writing coupled with intelligent information of the natural world and environment.  The book does not disappoint and is a good choice for a reading group and a follow-up discussion.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

THE GREAT SILENCE by Juliet Nicolson (non-fic)

This book follows The Perfect Summer, Juliet Nicolson's previous study of the social life of Britain just before the First World War.  This time she concentrates on the two years after the war has ended and before the Jazz Age has begun.  It is fascinating look at, as well as a reminder, of what civilians and returning veterans have to deal with, as a major war winds down.  You may have recently viewed the popular t.v. show Downton Abby and seen a small piece of this readjustment.  But, the reality was so much larger than that.

At the end of the war, 3,500,000 men had to be reabsorbed into British society.  They returned to a people who did not want to be reminded of the horrors these shell-shocked veterns, many suffering with PTSD, brought with them.  Many of those returning had missing limbs and horribly disfigured faces.  There is an enlightening account of a dedicated and brilliant surgeon from New Zealand named Harold Gillies who in 1917 established the first hospital devoted solely to reconstruction of faces, taking on the most difficult and tragic cases.  Gillies worked with a team of artists who formed visual reconstructions that the doctors used in repairing facial damage.  There is an eerie photo in the book of all these molded likenesses hanging on the hospital wall.  Each belonging to a real person.

Equally tragic are the stories of missing limbs in this age before social security or pension benefits.  It is horrifying to learn that government recompense was doled out according to which limb was lost.  If a man lost a right arm, he would receive 16 shillings, less for a left arm, something less for a leg and nothing for a face.

In contrast to the tragic lives of the returning warriors, are the accounts of the dawn of the decade of the 20s and the excesses of those like the Gatsbys of the world who were making money one way or another.  Large country homes and estates were being sold off to the nouveau riche and industrial giants.  Old families were falling into genteel poverty.  The frantic quest for good times was dogged by the arrival of influenza, popularly known as the Spanish Flu which killed off 40-50 million people world wide.

The author is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.  There is a wealth of first hand material in the archives of her own famous family for her to draw on.  Despite this, Nicolson is at her best when describing the mixture of hardship and good times in this short period before the boom of the 1920s, rather than the excesses of the more privleged class.  If you have read a lot about this era, you will not find much new material in this book.  However, if it is an unfamiliar period to you, this book is a good introduction.

DISQUIET by Julia Leigh (fic)

Julia Leigh, an Australian writer has written an unusual novelette.  At 121 pages, it can be read at one or two sittings.  It title is apt; it is disquieting with a touch of the sinister lurking throughout.  The word quiet which is embedded in the title is equally apt.  Few words are spoken, and those few are short and terse.  What the reader experiences is like viewing a movie.  We see pictures, carefully drawn like a series of photogenic scenes.  Sounds are not described, nor do we know anything about the characters' internal lives, or what they are thinking.  We barely know what their backgrounds are.  What we do know, we discover through the actions of each character in the story.  Nevertheless, the story is interesting and mysterious.

The action commences at a Gothic chateau on the outskirts of a small French village.  The time period could be Victorian, but then we discover the characters have mobile phones which play a part in keeping the action moving.  The main character, Olivia, is often just referred to as the woman.  She has returned home with two young children and is running from a husband who abused her.  She is curiously distant with her children,  yet at other times, shows some compassion toward them. The children seems to live in a world of their own making. Other characters are soon brought into the story: a brother and his wife who has just lost a child in birth, with weird consequences; and the faithful retainer, Ida, and her twin helpers.  Each character has a part to play in their remote and disfunctional relationships. 

If you want a quick read, perhaps for a plane trip, this book may be of interest.  It is strange, moody and dark, but well written.  I came away feeling like I had spent two hours at the cinema. The characters and their motives remained with me for some time.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST? by Jim Holt (non-fic)

I knew when I began this book there would not be an answer to existence vs. nothingness.  I asked myself why I kept reading.  The answer is, simply, that Jim Holt is an interesting and down to earth writer. As I have enjoyed his articles in the New Yorker, I was not disappointed in this book. It was a stretch to choose this for summer reading as it requires close concentration and mindfulness.  It is a good thing that Holt did all his research for me; I could agree/disagree or just throw up my hands in a complete lack of understanding, especially the bits containing mathematical formulas.  I didn't need Holt to remind me that there are limits to our intelligence.  However I kept returning for more.

While I didn't discover the meaning of nothing, I did discover that a number of modern cosmologists and philosophers have a sense of humor and are not imprisoned in ivory towers.  The reader meets:  David Deutch, Adolf Grunbaum, John Leslie, Derek Parfit, Roger Penrose, Richard Swinburne Steven Weinberg and most interestingly John Updike who not only was a surprise, but gave me new insights into his novels.  Holt's travels to meet these great and esoteric minds takes him to London, Oxford, Paris, Pittsburgh, and Austen, Texas.  There are delicious meals, wines sampled and sights to be enjoyed along the way.

One of the most delightful sections of the book tells of Holt's visit with Adolf Grunbaum.  We meet him in a chapter titled "The Great Rejectionist."  Grunbaum teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.  He is a philosopher of science and we are told "the foremost thinker about the subtleties of space and time."  It turns out this visit was not all gobbledygook about nothingness, but includes good meals and a harrowing journey to a mountain-top restaurant (Mt. Washington) for dinner and a picturesque view overlooking the city of Pittsburgh.

If, as I, you find thinking about the meaning of life makes you feel like a dog chasing its tail, you couldn't have a better guide than Holt.  Likewise, if you just want to catch up on modern thinkers and haven't had a cosmology course since university.  As I finished the last page of the book, I was sorry to leave the company of Jim Holt, but happy to get back to the minutiae of my little life and leave the heavy thinking to the philosophers.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

THE PHANTOM by Jo Nesbo (fic)

Once again I compulsively read into the wee hours of the morning, unable to put down Jo Nesbo's latest and ninth Harry Hole thriller. As the other books in this series, The Phantom is well over 400 pages long, so it was several nights worth of tense reading.  It is a wonder that the suspense created by the writer allowed me to fall asleep, but what dreams I had, I cannot say.

As I mentioned in reviewing The Leopard, this is not the book to begin with if you haven't read any Nesbo.  Especially don't begin with this book which has a number of reoccurring characters.  You might begin with The Redbreast  or The Snowman, which I understand is being made into a film by Martin Scorsese, something to look forward to. 

Once again in Phantom we meet up with the apt named Harry Hole (in Norwegian pronounced Holer). As in Leopard, he is living in Hong Kong.  It has been three years since he has been in Norway and seen Rakel, the woman he has always loved.  Returning now to Oslo, we find him in tough shape sporting a variety of battle scars and bunking in a seedy hotel in a district filled with junkies and pushers. He is no longer a member of the police force, but still maintains a good number of contacts in Kripos.  Most of the book takes place in this vicious underworld ruled by drug kings, with names like Dubai, battling for dominance in the trade.  Harry has returned to help free Rakel's son, Oleg who is in prison, accused of murdering a lowlife character named Gusto.  Oleg, whom Harry has always treated like a son, is now 18 and heavily involved in the drug culture.  He and Gusto were mixed up with buying and selling a potent new synthetic drug called "violin" which is more powerful than heroin. While Harry's personal life seems to be falling apart and his own addictions fight to take a hold of him, he never loses his desire to be a good cop.

Phantom is not as well written as a couple of Nesbo's earlier books, but is just as addictive and full of action that would kill a lesser mortal than Harry Hole many times over.  Nesbo, a former footballer in the Norwegian Premier League as well as a popular rock singer, is a master at keeping the reader fully engaged with the action.  We can all be glad that he has turned his talents toward writing these fast paced books which are perfect antidotes to dull gray days.  While I can't recommend his books for the beauty of the writing, I can say you will never be bored, and when the last page is read you will be thirsting for the next installment of this Harry's adventures, just as our children avidly followed their Harry in the J.K. Rowling series.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

TRANSATLANTIC by Colum McCann (fic)

Colum McCann won the National Book Award for his previous book, Let the Great World Spin.  If you have not read any of his novels, that is the book to begin with.  McCann often chooses an important historical event as a starting point for his story.   His various characters are all affected in some way by the event and then connected to each other as the writer spins his tale.

Transatlantic begins in 1919 with an account of two veterans of the Great War as they prepare to be the first to fly across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Great Britain.  Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown were real people who accomplished this record feat, landing in Ireland.  McCann's characters are beautifully drawn and fully believable.  Their story is the first of seven chapters, each with a lifelike main character who reveals his/her story through his own viewpoint. Each character makes a transatlantic crossing along the way. As they prepare for their historic flight, Alcock and Brown meet Emily Ehrlich and her daughter Lottie.  Emily is a reporter who has gained some renown for her colorful dispatches. These two women will reappear as we trace their ancestors and descendants.

The reader is then whisked to Dublin in 1840 for an interesting and little known account of the great Frederick Douglas and his connection to the Irish unrest and potato famine. While in Ireland, he stays with a Quaker family, and his path crosses that of Lily Duggan, an ancestor of Emily and Lottie.

Another section of the book shows us Senator George Mitchell of Maine in 1998, working on behalf of the Clinton administration to broker a peace accord between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.  The reader can feel his stress and fatigue as his efforts begin to show progress.  In a quiet moment, his path crosses that of Lottie who is now over 90 years of age and her daughter, Hannah.  How they came to be living in the land of their ancestors is told in the next section of the book.

Through Lottie and Hannah, we discover the story of Lily Duggan and how she came to be in the United States.  We find her nursing soldiers in the American Civil War in 1863, as her only son is killed in battle.  Lily makes another life and eventual career for herself when she marries again and has six children. 

Once again we circle back to Emily, Lottie, and finally in 2011, Lottie's daughter Hannah.  The book ends with Hannah's story in Ireland.  She is deeply connected to her home and land.  As we leave her story, she is thinking, "There isn't a story in the world that isn't in part, at least, addressed to the past."  This is certainly true of the characters we meet in this book.

McCann writes in spare poetic sentences.  He rarely uses conjunctions, though some snuck in the final chapters of the book.  He is a masterful story teller whose characters come alive to the reader.  I recommend this book as an enjoyable well written story which weaves history and characters, some real some invented, into a realistic tale of lives impacting each other.

Monday, August 12, 2013

DON'T LET'S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT by Alexandra Fuller (non-fic)

Alexandra Fuller wrote this book in 2001.  I can't believe I haven't read it before now.  However, I made up for it by reading it almost non-stop, totally fascinated by her well-written account of growing up in what in now Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia.  The memoir covers the years from her childhood through her marriage.  It is impossible to read this book without wanting to know more about this family.  Thankfully Fuller has followed up with a second volume, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. Fuller is a absorbing raconteur and as I read, I kept wanting to invite her over for a cup of tea, coffee, a glass of wine, anything so that I could ask, "...and then what, but what about?..."

Fuller's account begins with her birth in 1969 and her upbringing in the Burma Valley on the eastern border of Rhodesia and Mozambique. Luckily there is a map at the beginning of the book which I referred to often.

 It wasn't answered in this book, but I want to know more about her parents, and why they left England to settle and manage several farms in Africa.  Alexandra, called Bobo had one older sister, Vanessa; a brother who died young of meningitis; another sister who drowned as an infant; and a brother who died in childbirth.  That Bobo and Vanessa thrived in a dangerous environment and grew to adulthood is a testament to their toughness and the knowledge that they were loved, despite their mother and father's decidedly casual parenting style.  The Fullers worked hard, played hard and drank a lot and often.  Bobo and Vanessa squabbled constantly, yet protected and loved each other in an atmosphere that was akin to sending toddlers off to boot camp.  At times their parents were reckless in their neglect of the safety of the girls as the family worked trying to salvage several derelict and isolated farms.  At age 6, Alexandra was loading and cleaning guns and learning how to shoot. 

Fuller never judges her parents or the white society of Rhodesia in which she was culturally raised.  She states facts and describes conditions of the war for independence along with beautiful descriptions of the wild land she so loves.  After their farm was put up for auction in the land distribution program, the family moved to Malawi.  The political realities of living there proved impossible to maintain and they ended up in Zambia.  When old enough, the girls were sent to board at a school in Harare in Zimbabwe which began as an "A" school for whites only, and subsequently integrated after the revolution. 

Eventually we learn that Fuller's alcoholic mother was diagnosed as bi-polar.  The girls have further adventures, grow up, find love and marry.  After marrying an American, the author  moved to Wyoming where she still lives. 

I highly recommend this book as it is not only insightful and well-written, it gives a fascinating look at a family's precarious life style in an area of the world that is as beautiful as it is dangerous. This is also a thought provoking study for a reading group.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson (fic)

Kate Atkinson is a brilliant writer and her books are unforgettable.  One of her most engaging characters is Jackson Brodie in her Case Histories series.  I have enjoyed all her books and always eagerly look forward to her next.  Her novels are amusing, intelligent, clever and invariably entertaining.  Life After Life is my favorite and the most imaginative, as well as among the most enjoyable books I have read this year.

The story is about Ursula Todd, a curious child born in a suburb of London in 1910.  The thing is, that Ursula dies just as her story begins.  She then reappears, and dies, and reappears, and dies, again and again.  That is until she gets it right....her life. It is the most wonderful premise for a book and rather than being confusing, it somehow clearly makes sense. It means the author can reinvent her story over and over, and the reader can't wait to see what the next incarnation will bring.  This is a book I read into the wee hours just to see what turn Ursula's next life would take.

Each era ends with the words, "darkness fell."  As Ursula survives her endings we live through her childhood in the bucolic English countryside.  She was the third of five children and besides her parents, two servants who are like part of the family also live in the Edwardian home.  We live through a good deal of history, the two World Wars and the in between times.  The bombing of London in WWII is made very real as Ursula spends several lives there, including one with an abusive husband who thankfully does not survive into her next life.  Ursula has several romances along the way which give the reader a chance to root for the most appropriate of the bunch.  One of the most likable characters in the book is her wayward aunt, Izzy, the black sheep of the family, who flits about from one adventure to another, but who is always there to support and help Ursula in times of trouble.  And Ursula has more than her share of troublesome adventures. One of the more curious is an encounter with Adolf Hitler.

It is hard to do justice to this book in a review as it can seem flighty and confusing.  It is not.  It is a top notch story that I highly recommend.  Do read it, you will not be disappointed.  It is also a good choice for reading groups.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

HIS ILLEGAL SELF by Peter Carey (fic)

Peter Carey the Australian writer who has won the Booker Prize twice is a consistently top notch writer.  You may have read Oscar and Lucinda or The True History of the Kelly Gang.  Most of his books have been set in the past during the frontier years of Australia.  Carey now lives in New York City and has a new novel out which is on my "to read" list.  His Illegal Self is set in both the States and Queensland, but the author leaves the past behind to tell a more modern story.

The story begins through the eyes of a wise and precocious seven year old, named Che Selkirk, a child of the hippie revolution.  It takes place in 1972.  Che was born while his mother, Susan, the daughter of wealthy parents, was studying at Harvard.  She became radicalized after taking up with an underground leader, David Rubbo.  Selkirk and Rubbo led student protests against the likes of Robert McNamara.  They robbed banks and devised homemade bombs.  Their activities lead the reader to imagine them as members of the Weathermen of the 70s.  After Che was nearly run over during a protest, his grandmother Phoebe Selkirk takes custody of the infant and raises him to the time when the story begins. 

The first part of the book is somewhat bewildering as it would be to the young boy who is now called Jay by his grandparents.  At this point, a young Vassar lecturer from Southie in Boston, who admired Susan Selkirk, enters the story.  The reader is told her name is Dial and we at first think she is Che's mother.  It soon becomes clear that she is not.  Rather, she has been sent by Susan and the underground to bring Che to Susan in Philadelphia.  The flight of Dial and Che is told in different flashbacks when the story is continued through the eyes of Dial.  They never reach Philadelphia because Susan is the victim of an accident caused by a home-made bomb.  Dial's story is gradually revealed, and we find out who she really is and what her background is. 

After a series of ill-planned adventures, the underground helps Dial (who is now branded as a kidnapper) and Che to flee to Australia.  Here they join a loosely organized hippie commune on the edge of the outback in Queensland.  This hippie group seem quite hapless as do the local police.  The jungle-like settlement is buggy, muggy and the living conditions are extremely poor.  It is a credit to Che that he is able to adjust to this earthy life and never gives up hope that his adventures will lead to his father whom he fantasizes about.  Despite this, Che is more grounded in reality than the helpless Dial.

One of the men, Trevor, who seems to be on the run for some undisclosed activity, takes it upon himself to protect the naive Dial and Che.  Trevor's motives are suspect and this creates tension as he interacts with Che and Dial.  As the story works toward its ending, this tension builds and keeps the plot moving until the pieces fall into place.

Carey is a brilliant writer and the book is enjoyable and has a bit of a mystery as the reader discovers how all the players are connected.  I was amused to even see Whitey Bulger mentioned, as he was indeed in the news in 1972 and has rarely been out of the news since then.  Right now his trial is going on in Boston.

I recommend this book to all who enjoy a good story related with imagination and color.  This is also a good book for a reading group.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

A BOOK OF SECRETS by Michael Holroyd (non-fic)

How lovely on a perfectly dull and gray day to sit down in a comfy chair and begin a biography by Michael Holroyd.  He has written a number of great ones, among them:  Lytton Strachey, Augustus John, Bernard Shaw and three recent biographies which are on a more personal level as the author inserts himself into these stories. Such is the case with A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers. 

The catalyst in the book is the Villa Cimbrone a picturesque manor surrounded by beautiful gardens which sits on a high hill above Ravello in Italy.  The villa was owned by a late Victorian with the Dickensian name of Lord Grimthorpe.  The story begins with Eve Fairfax who was engaged to Grimthorpe and subsequently abandoned by him.  After he commissioned a bust of her by Auguste Rodin, she became a muse of the artist.  Eve, a lonely spinster living on the grace and generosity of others, reached the great age of 107.  It is possible that she conceived a child, which eventually leads us to Catherine Till who believes her father is Grimthorpe's son Ralph. 

All of the women in the book are connected in some way by chance or relation and all are connected with the Villa Cimbrone.  The most space is given to Violet Trefusis, the illegitimate daughter of Alice Keppel, a mistress of Edward VIII.  Violet who became a well-known author herself, carried on a torrid relationship with Vita Sacville-West which did not end well. 

Holroyd's interest was piqued during the 1970s when he happened by the bust of Eve Fairfax in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  Thus he enters the story as he begins his research on Eve Fairfax which leads to his visits to the Villa Cimbrone with his wife, the author, Margaret Drabble. As the various characters, appear on Holroyd's stage, the tale begins to take on a Midsummer-Night's Dream quality.  Gore Vidal even makes an appearance as he owns a fabulous cliff-side home near by.

There is a helpful family tree at the back of the book, if the relationships of the various characters need further clarification.  The usual Victorian and Edwardian scandal keeps the book interesting to the very end. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

THE THIRD ANGEL by Alice Hoffman (fic)

Alice Hoffman is a prolific author; her novels usually involve emotional connections, forged and broken, among her characters.  Her novel Third Angel traces betrayal and forgiveness within families.  The book is divided into three sections, each of which could stand alone, and the story moves backward through time. The women each come from a different generation, yet are connected with each other, which we discover as the story moves forward. One of the characters is the author of a picture book which can be read both backwards and forwards, just as this novel can. 

Each tale involves either absent parents or sibling relationships, and the love that binds the characters as closely as romantic love.  The title comes from a tale in the middle section.  A young girl, Freida, is making rounds with her father who is a country doctor.  As they drive along he tells her a story of three angels: the Angel of Life, the Angel of Death, and the third Angel who remains among us asking compassion for those who suffer. 

The novel is a romantic fable, at the center of which is the Lion Park Hotel in London which plays a part in each woman's story.  It opens with a wedding in 1999 and the rivalry between two sisters, Maddy and Allie Heller.  This section is a story of secrets and betrayal.  The middle section is about the Freida Lewis now grown up in 1966, who falls in love with a callous rock star.  The final section also also involves a wedding, this time in 1952; the catalyst being a young girl, Lucy, who moves the action toward the novel's climax.  When Lucy grows up, she is the mother of the sisters in the first tale.

The novel is not as complicated as it sounds.  All of the stories mesh nicely.  Because the book is a fable and mysterious coincidences take place, in order to fully enjoy the story the reader has to embrace these possibilities.  I prefer realistic novels, so I cannot say I was able to appreciate this book, although it is skillfully written.  If you are a fan of Alice Hoffman, you will most likely enjoy this novel. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

GRACE A MEMOIR by Grace Coddington (non-fic)

Grace Coddington's Memoir is like an ice-cream cone on a summer's day, quickly consumed but soon forgotten.  My hopes for the book were greater than what was delivered.  Grace is loyal to her friends, and a lot of the more interesting bits about the fashion world are never revealed.  That is not to say that the book is dull, but you have to be familiar with the world of Vogue and fashion to recognize the names of the designers and photographers that come and go in Grace's life.  Coddington has illustrated the book herself, and her line drawings are whimsical and likable.  There are also many excellent photos scattered throughout the book. 

Not long ago there was a documentary, "The September Issue" about the making of Vogue's most important issue of the year.  As it turned out, Grace Coddington was a more interesting character than her boss, the famous Anna Wintour.  Because she was so present in the film with her mane of springy red hair and colorful personality (at times cranky and always direct), it seemed her follow-up book was bound to be interesting. Who could have guessed that this woman, who reminds me of early paintings of the young Elizabeth I with her high forehead and frizzy curls, is the same person who posed for Vidal Sassoon's game changing 5 point haircut of the sixties. 

For me, the best parts of the book are those which tell of her childhood on the Welsh island of Anglesey where I spent two happy summer holidays.  Her descriptions of attending school and growing up there are entertaining and well written.  Her early modeling days in London and life in Chelsea are also very well done.  Coddington was not some frippery of a model.  As an original, talented artist with an eye for fashion staging and styling, she soon became indispensable first to British Vogue and subsequently to its American cousin in New York City.  Along the way, she had adventures and experiences, but she never goes deeply enough into them that the reader remembers them or how they shaped her world.  It is clear Grace has devoted her life to fashion and excels at her job.  At one point in the book she tells us that all her friends (except for her beloved cats) are in the fashion world, and so it does seem.  She ends the book with a description of a fabulous party Anna Wintour gives her for her 70th birthday.  All those fashion friends are there, names recognizable to any one interested the fashion world.  Grace Coddington strikes the right note about herself when she says:
...I've grown to realize that life doesn't stand still and it's no good being sad about it.  For me, one of the most important aspects of my  work is to give people something to dream about, just as I used to dream all those years ago as a child looking at beautiful photographs.  I still weave dreams, finding inspiration wherever I can and looking for romance in the real, not the digital, world.

If you are familiar with Grace Coddington's beautifully designed photos in Vogue you must agree with her sentiments.  If you enjoy fashion, you will like knowing more about Coddington's world.  I just wish the reader could have delved deeper into the personalities who surround her.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

LAND OF MARVELS by Barry Unsworth (fic)

Barry Unsworth, a Booker Prize winner for Sacred Hunger writes fine historical novels that are well researched and terrific reads.  Land of Marvels is much the same.  The setting is in Mesopotamia in 1914 just before World War I breaks out.  One has a feeling of compassion for the characters as they reveal their ambitions.  The reader knows what future the great war will bring and knows the futility of their hopes.  The Ottoman Empire is in decline, and the Middle East is still made up of desert areas ruled by tribesmen.  Germany, England, and even the United States have begun their incursion into land ruled by the Turks in the hopes of finding oil. A few men, including Winston Churchill have the foresight to recognize its coming importance.

As the story opens, John Somerville an English archaeologist specializing in the Assyrian Empire is working on a dig near what will become Iraq, but still then under Turkish rule.  He is sponsored by the Royal Society.  Besides needing money for his mission, he desperately needs time as he daily watches the Germans building a railroad which promises to cut through his excavation site.  Somerville firmly in his ivory tower cannot see what is happening under his nose.  He is on the cusp of a very important discovery, and suspense builds as the novel evolves.

Equally naive is his wife, Edith, a true daughter of Imperial Britain.  Her opposite is Patricia, a very modern young lady, a graduate of Cambridge who is an admirer of Fanny Pankhurst and the votes for women movement. These women are thrown together with an assortment of characters some intellectual and others crassly materialistic.  Patricia falls in love with a cuneiform expert named Palmer who is also of a liberal bent.  He is acting as an assistant to Somerville and has a more worldly outlook and firmer grasp on reality.  There is also a British spy, a major Manning and a couple of Swedish missionaries who are attempting to recreate a tourist attraction, convinced they have discovered the site of the Garden of Eden. 

Enter Alex Elliot, an American geologist who sets story in action, bringing mystery with him, eventually leading to a spectacular climax.  Elliot is an energetic and handsome daredevil who is a double agent working for both the Germans and English, but above all working for his own interests.  He sets the heart of the proper and inexperienced Edith on fire. The reader becomes intrigued with these characters and their involvement with each other. 

Unsworth, the true historian presents an interesting contrast to the West's continuing involvement with the Middle East and its voracious appetite for oil.  It all begins here including the West's misunderstanding of the culture and history of the region.  I recommend this novel as an excellent adventure story, but also as a thought provoking exercise in the parallels with today's world and the problems of the Middle Eastern countries.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

LADIES IN WAITING by Anne Somerset (non-fic)

I love library sales and remainders' tables in bookstores.  You never know what will turn up.  Ladies in Waiting was written back in the 80s and it might be out of print by now.  I checked on Amazon and it is still listed at the very low bargain price of $1.98, and if you are interested in British history from a different perspective, you may want to pick this book up.  It ranges in time from the Tutors through the modern era.

In her introduction the author writes: "Until the present century the court was one of the few British institutions where women had a role to play, and one moreover that was not purely ornamental.  At a time when virtually every profession was an exclusively masculine preserve, the position of lady-in-waiting to the Queen was almost the only occupation that and upperclass Englishwoman could with propriety pursue."

The most interesting eras were those where court intrigue was rife and morals were loose.  During the reigns of the Tutors and the Stuarts one could be sure that it was the rare young woman who left the service of a Queen still a virgin.  Because the monarchs were still powerful, the many woman who surrounded the Queen wielded influence far in excess of their position.  Often the waiting ladies became mistresses of either the King or one of the powerful men who surrounded him.  Money and bribes followed influence.  This situation led as one might expect to petty jealousies and jockeying for power.  Lies, sex, envy and duplicity became the name of the game.  For this many a high born female was willing to take on the arduous duties of waiting on the Queen in a menial capacity such as food taster, mistress of the wardrobe and other duties that chambermaids performed in highborn households.  The more things change, the more they remain the same.  All through the ages the same greed and shallowness occurred.  Even the great Queen Elizabeth I was unable to control the women who came to court.  Many a noble-born female retired to obscurity in the countryside, disgraced by a scandal.  Many a husband turned a blind eye to his wife's indiscretions in order to further his own ambitions.

If you want a peek at the hidden side of royal history, you will find this book interesting and may even find that some events in history were born of events behind the closed doors of the royal palaces. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

THE FORGETTING TREE by Tatjana Soli (fic)

Tatjana Soli's previous book, her first, called The Lotus Eaters was one of my favorite reads a few years ago.  It is about a female war photographer who becomes addicted to life on the edge in the war zone of Vietnam.  It is realistic and masterfully written.  While I didn't enjoy The Forgetting Tree as much as the Soli's first book, it is still a powerful and interesting story about how human lives become intertwined and interdependent.

The story takes place on a citrus ranch in Southern California where the arid landscape makes farming difficult and at times precarious with the threat of summer wildfires.  Soli does a wonderful job of appealing to our senses with her descriptions of the smell and taste of the earth.  One can feel the mist in the morning along the rows of trees, the vastness of the evening skies, the constant need of nurture in both flora and the people who inhabit the story. Like most of America, the suburbs are threatening to destroy a way of life that had existed since early days in California.

This is the story of Claire and Minna and their relationship.  Claire marries into a ranching family and comes to love the farm more than her husband does who was born there.  Claire is the only one who resists selling to developers after a horrible tragedy takes the life of her son.  Her husband Forster eventually moves on after they divorce, and her two daughters grow up and leave the home that only held painful memories for them.  It is at this point in the story that Claire, after years of isolation, develops breast cancer. She does not tell the girls, who are involved in their own lives, how seriously she is ill.  This is when Minna, a beautiful black girl from the Caribbean enters the story, brought to Claire by her younger daughter.  Minna is at loose ends and cheerfully takes on the duties of caretaker.  Claire is by turns defiant, proud, irritable, depressed and a difficult patient.  Minna through her patient persistence wins her over.

Then the story becomes dark.  The reader knows something is wrong with Minna as she gradually gains ascendancy over Claire and isolates her from friends and family.  Minna is mysterious and strong and becomes overbearing.  Eventually she scares off all the farmhands and Octavio, Claire's faithful overseer.   The story begins to move toward a climax that does not bode well.  Now we learn Minna's story which is most interesting, as she is a more developed character than Claire.  This is the best part of the book.  As the reader has suspected all along, Minna is not who or what she seems. 

The end comes quickly after Minna's story and Soli does a good job of tying up all the story threads.  I can confidently recommend this book as an interesting and gripping read.  If you like the writing, read Soli's first book which is most excellent.  Both are good choices for reading groups.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

ALL THAT IS by James Salter (fic)

When I pick up a book written by James Salter, I lose myself in the impeccably written story with its concise sentences that tell you all you need to know about each character you meet. Salter has the gift of being able to write a perfect sentence with such poetic cadence, that each sentence leads to the next until it become impossible to put the book down. 

It has been 35 years since Salter's last novel, and at age 87 he has written a brilliant story.  It is an elegant and easy read, like a slow waltz that you want to go on forever.  Set in the years after World War II, the reader can feel the pace slow down as he/she enters a time devoid of our frantic electronic gadgets, a time when we can mull over the characters motives, even as we know the world they are leaving as they move through the decade of the 50s and enter the 1960s. This is a quiet book of gentle rhythm.  It is about a veteran named Philip Bowman who joins a New York Publishing House as an editor.  Post-war was an interesting and exciting time to be in publishing.  We are reminded that it was still possible to enter this field without the type of competition that we face in today's world. 

The characters Bowman meets as we move through the novel with him are each presented as only Salter can, fully characterized in such a way, that you know these people.  You like them or dislike them.  Salter doesn't make the decision for you.  You wonder about them; you meander with them; you find yourself thinking of them hours later, the same way you think about people you really know.

The book is romantic and certainly in one instance, disturbing.  You think you know Bowman, but do we really know people, or are they what we want them to be?

Anyone who has lived through these decades will certainly feel the familiar tug of the past.  Those who haven't but think they know the years of Mad Men, may want to broaden their knowledge with this piece of the past. You can't find a better guide than James Salter.   I give this novel my highest recommendation.  It is the best novel I have read this year. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

THE CHURCHILLS by Mary Lovell (non-fic)

Mary Lovell writes delightfully readable biographies.  She has published a number of well-received and widely read books.  Two of her previous books that I greatly enjoyed are: "Straight on Till Morning," a biography of Beryl Markham and "The Mitford Girls," who can never be less than fascinating.  Now her book on the Churchill Family is a rich and mesmerizing saga.  It feels as if the reader is sitting down for afternoon tea with a close friend and hearing the latest dish on the ducal family in the palace up the road.

We meet the first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, in 1704 after his famous victory at Blenheim (thus the name of the great house built to rival Versailles).  He and his wife, Sarah were in the center of palace intrigue during the reign of Charles II and later Queen Anne.  The story picks up again with the 7th and 8th Dukes in the reign of Queen Victoria.  By this time family wealth was depleted, as were many of the fortunes of the great houses of Britain.  The best solution to replenishing these old family coffers was to bring in the wealthy American heiresses. 

Among the first to marry into the Churchill family was Jennie Jerome, an American beauty who married Randolph the younger brother of the 8th Duke whose son married Consuelo Vanderbilt, another famous beauty.  Both of these marriages were disasters.  The men were bolters, and the women stood by their men until it became too emotionally damaging.  They found consolation elsewhere. Jennie married three times, each partner increasingly younger, until her last husband was younger than her sons, Winston and Jack.  Consuelo also found the love of her life in France along with well-deserved happiness.  Both women produced the requisite heirs and a spare.  This group of 19th century Churchills provide plenty of juicy scandals to keep the reader turning pages as if it were a novel.  One can't help imagining a nice long series that Masterpiece Theater could make of this family story.

When we reach the 20th century and the era of Winston Churchill, we find the story equally enthralling.  As Winston shaped the early history of the 20th century through both world wars, his children provided drama reflecting that of their earlier ancestors.  The Mitford family who are cousins also enter the picture.  All this is fueled by the dysfunction brought on by depression and alcoholism that runs through the family from the earliest members to the generation who grew up between the World Wars.  Luckily for Winston, he had a loving relationship with Clementine who remained devoted to him through thick and thin.  Winston proved to be a full time job for Clementine, and their children suffered by being neglected, as Winston was often absent and Clementine was busy shoring up Winston and didn't seem terribly interested in the children. 

While Lovell is sketchy in filling in the background history that shaped the Churchills, as they in turn shaped English history, her focus on the family dynamics is engrossing.  I highly recommend this biography of a great though flawed family to any reader interested in the Upstairs residents of Blenheim Palace.  It also has plenty of discussion material for reading groups.

Friday, May 24, 2013

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON by Adam Johnson (fic)

"The Orphan Master's Son" won the Pulitzer Prize for literature for 2012.  It is a bleak, dark look into the hidden country of North Korea.  If I hadn't read of Adam Johnson who teaches at Stanford, I would have been sure the book was written by a Korean who had personal knowledge of the bereft life of its citizens.  The colors I associate with this communist state are grey and dun like the uniforms all seem to wear when we see its citizens on t.v.  The book reflects this mono-hued world, and the only sunshine I can conjure up is on the short trip to Texas that the hero of the book takes in a weird sequence toward the end of Part One.  Many of the scenes take place at night where blackouts occur after 10:00 PM. 

We first meet Jun Do in a home for orphans in a small industrial city.  He clings to the belief that his mother was so beautiful that she was taken to Pyongyang which was often the fate of attractive women. Jun Do lives in dreams, a survival method that allows him to be numb to the dangers that surround him.  Through his loyal obedience he works his way up from being a tunnel rat to an a kidnapper of coastal Japanese citizens.  He eventually is sent to language school to learn English and is assigned to a derelict fishing boat where he mans a listening station hoping to pick up signals and conversations between American and Japanese coastal patrol boats.  This section of the book allows the reader to get to know Jun Do a bit better.  It is touching to read of his fascination with two American female rowers who are circumnavigating the globe.  They row at night, and he listens in on their conversations.  One of the rowers appears again later in the book.

Through a strange series of events Jun Do becomes a state hero and finds himself on a plane with various party officials flying to Texas for a secret meeting with an American senator.  This event is priceless, in turns funny and sad. While there Jun Do is studying his American hosts.  He watches the Senator give his dogs treats and decides, "....that in communism, you'd threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes."

In Part two, events turn very dark.  The reader finds him/herself in an Orwellian world where truth is fiction and doublespeak is pervasive.  It is disorienting and breeds feeling of discomfort akin to what one imagines North Korean citizens might feel.  Jun Do strangely has taken on the persona of a Commander Ga.  In effect he begins to live the life of Ga and falls in love with his wife, Sun Moon.  At the same time the story shifts to Prison Camp 33 and we find Jun Do at turns a tortured prisoner and a husband to Sun Moon.  What is true, what is real?  The reader is left to puzzle the strangeness of this country ruled by Kim Jong-il, The Dear Leader.   In the light of recent events in North Korea, it is even more ominous.

In the end Jun Do is able to salvage his humanity through love and sacrifice.  This is not a book for the faint of heart.  I found this well-written novel tough going but thought provoking.  The plight of the people of North Korea and what goes on behind the line dividing North and South Korea can not be known. It is heart wrenching.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

BELIEVING THE LIE by Elizabeth George (fic)

Elizabeth George is justifiably famous for her on-going series of Inspector Lynley mysteries.  George is actually an American who often out-Brits the Brits with her authenticity of setting and language.  If you have never read an Inspector Lynley mystery, absolutely do not begin with this book, or you may never read another novel by her.  George is an excellent writer and in the past her books, always best-sellers, have lived up to their reputations.  This particular book falls far short of her usual suspenseful plots and cast of characters.   Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley is hardly his recognizable self here.  Yes, he has lost his adored Helen, but his melodramatic self-pity is not up to his former stiff-upper-lip self. The idea that he would be involved with an affair with a woman who is his superior on the force appears contrived, especially as she is a dyspeptic alcoholic.  One might well ask why? One of my favorite characters, DS Barbara Havers is relegated to the sidelines in London, making brief appearances in another sub-plot touching on her personal life. 

This time the action takes place in the Lake District.  Lynley is sent north to look into the death of a member of the dysfunctional Fairclough family.  Accompanying him are his friends Simon St. James and his wife Deborah.  These two in past books seemed intelligent and thoughtful.  What a disaster here.  Deborah is responsible for the loss of a life through her foolish meddling, and Simon is a cardboard character.

The book has too many characters with problems, and jumps from one plot to another leaving the reader confused and wondering how so many people with problems and kinks could come together in one story.  In the end, it all seems contrived.  This might be a passable book for a less gifted writer, but fans should expect more from Ms. George.  One the plus side, her description of the seaside and landscape in Cumbria and Morecambe Bay is evocative.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

APOLLO'S ANGELS by Jennifer Homans (non-fic)

Jennifer Homans, a former ballerina and dance critic, has written a definitive and dense history of ballet.  She follows ballet's beginnings in the 16th century as an outgrowth of Italian Pantomime to its transformation to a more familiar genre when it migrated to France.  Louis XIII and his son Louis XIV were both enamoured of ballet and both performed publicly in highly stylized choreographed dances.  These dances were of mythological subjects, often centered around the god Apollo, the sun god, leading Louis XIV to be known as the Sun King.  At this time dance was not performed on a raised stage, which eventually allowed larger audience participation.  Louis' ballet teacher, Beauchamps was the first to define the five ballet positions, and his proscribed movements became the pattern for all French ballets.  In a slightly modified form they are still used world-wide today.

Holmans takes us though the ages ballet's transformation from France to Denmark to Russia to Italy and back to France and then England.  At first only men performed the dances, and it was de rigour for all courtiers to learn the intricate and graceful steps of dance.  Woe betide the clumsy individual who was made a laughing stock by his peers.

When ballet was taken up with fervor by the Danes, more changes were made and the Danish ballet academy under August Bournonville began a tradition of formality that still influences their choreography today. 

The French Revolution both political and social changed ballet again.  Once women began dancing, stories ceased to be "about men, power, and aristocratic manners... Instead it was an art of women devoted to charting the misty inner worlds of dreams and the imagination." Romanticism took hold. Giselle and La Sylphide were the first modern ballets.

In Russia only serfs were allowed to study the dance until the gifted French choreographer Petipa arrived in the mid-19th century and changed both their style and tradition. His famous collaboration with Tchaikovsky, on Swan Lake, Giselle, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, is still enjoyed and respected today.

Finally we come to modern times and the names become familiar, Nureyev, Fonteyn, Baryshnikov, Balanchine, Maya Plisetskya, Frederick Aston, Jerome Robbins, and many others.  Holmans history is tremendously thorough. I enjoyed reading about the 1960s and 70s as those were the times when I fell in love with the ballet and was lucky enough to have seen the major ballet stars of that era.

Holman's ends her history pessimistically (though I don't agree with her assessment).  She compares the ballet tradition to the Sleeping Beauty.  Today ballet is a sleeping art.  She states, "Over the past two decades ballet has come to resemble a dying language: Apollo and his angels are understood and appreciated by a shrinking circle of old believers in a closed corner of culture.  The story ---- our story---may be coming to a close.

If Holmans is correct than I am doubly grateful that I was able to experience the great ballets of the last decade of the 20th century.