Tuesday, December 30, 2014

FIVE DAYS AT MEMORIAL by Sheri Fink (non-fic)

I feel sure most of us have etched in our minds those horrific scenes on t.v. during and after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.  The intensity of what we were viewing was unrelenting for days and the consequences and aftermath has gone on for years.  Sheri Fink, a physician herself, has done extensive research into the disaster at Memorial Hospital and the subsequent charge of murder that was brought against Dr. Anna Pou and two nurses who were on duty at the hospital for the 5 days during and after the hurricane.  This book is the result of Fink's research and was chosen in 1913 as one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times.

For 5 days the staff and patients at Memorial Hospital waited for evacuation while the city, state of Louisiana and federal authorities conducted what now looks like an unprepared and incompetent scenario of bickering and poor organized efforts of rescuing the oppressed population of New Orleans.  Memorial, meanwhile operating with a skeleton crew and without electricity, was left to fend for itself, as its parent company, Tenet, was dithering without a plan or a helicopter contract.  As the hurricane raged and then departed, the temperature in the hospital rose to an unbearable level coupled with heavy moisture which intensified as the days went on and worked on the emotional level of patients, staff and the families and in some cases pets who were sheltering at the hospital.  Along with the rising contaminated water, the staff had to contend with roving bands of looters and addicts looking for drugs and food.

Doctors and especially nurses acted with heroism under the stress of sleep deprivation and the deteriorating condition of their patients.  This is their story and Fink tells it in admirable detail.  The central issue in the wake of the disaster is one of ethics and religious conviction.  Overworked doctors and nurses under the direction of Dr. Pou were put in a position to make life and death decisions for a group of patients in palliative care with Do Not Resuscitate orders on their charts.  When Dr. Pou made the decision to inject a number of these patients with morphine and a sedative, was she acting with mercy and euthanizing the dying or was it a question of murder?  This is what the DA's office in New Orleans investigated.  Forty-five corpses were found in the chapel of the hospital and many of these were not given the choice as they faced death.

Fink does a thorough examination of all sides of the moral issues involved as the city began to build its case again Dr. Pou.  She writes plainly and without exaggeration as she wades through the conflicting stories and evidence in the case.  Who can judge what choices people make under duress in a dreadful natural disaster such as Katrina.  As Fink states toward the end of the book:

"Sometimes individual medical choices are less a question of science than they are of values.  In a disaster, triage is about deciding what the goals of dividing resources should be for the larger population.......The larger community may emerge with ideas different from those held by small groups of medical professionals."

As a result of Katrina, hospitals all over the country have had to reexamine their response to catastrophic disasters.  Five Days at Memorial has played its part in this reexamination.  I highly recommend Sheri Fink's book to all readers.  It will provoke thoughtful discussion and moral examination of our values.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

LAST FRIENDS by Jane Gardam (fic)

This book is the third of a trilogy of superbly written books by Jane Gardam.  I recommend that you begin by reading "Old Filth" followed by "The Man in the Wooden Hat" and finally the above book, which would lose its relevance if read before the previous two.

All three books are tales told from the viewpoint of older characters looking back on their lives and how they mesh with each other's stories.  The stories range from the twenties through modern time and mainly involve three people, Edward Feathers Q.C. and his wife Betty and Terry Veneering, a handsome womanizer.  The first volume is about Edward Feathers, Old Filth of the title, which is an acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong."  The second book is about Betty who has a fling with Veneering, and finally the current book tells the story of Terry Veneering. The setting of the first two books is Hong Kong and through coincidence, or not, the principals all end up living in the same small village in the west of England.

"Last Friends" opens in Dorset in a village filled with the dotty type of characters that can only be  British.  One of my favorites is a somewhat confused old dear named Dulcie who rattles around in a large cold house.  She along with another eccentric elder called Fiscal-Smith are the last friends of the title.

As the book goes on, the reader discovers the real story of Terry Veneering who up to this point has presented as a sophisticated upper class Oxford graduate.  Contrary to his public persona, Veneering comes from a very poor Teeside mining town where his mother, Floorie supports the family by delivering coal and his father turns out to be a damaged Russian acrobat and even perhaps a spy.  Veneering is of course, not Terry's real name.  His mother is one of the more interesting characters in the novel.

Jane Gardam is an exceptional writer and these novels are funny and satirical, yet she gets to the real crux of her characters' beings.  I might have giggled my way through these novels, but I also realized that there were some real truths about people and relationships to be found in these pages.  I enjoyed all three books very much, perhaps the first two more than the third.

Monday, December 8, 2014

THE DISAPPEARED by Kim Echlin (fic)

"The Disappeared" is a love story filled with yearning and sadness.  It is a beautifully written book, and  Echlin writes with a unique and individual style and an economy of words.  Her sentences are brief yet filled with description and mood, very much like poetry.  This novel was a best seller in Canada.

Anne Greves, a young Canadian girl loves with an obsessiveness that is reminiscent of the narrator in Pamuk's book, "The Museum of Innocence." She meets a Cambodian young man named Serey who has been sent to Canada to further his education in Montreal.  Serey is an accomplished jazz musician who pours his longing for his country and family into his music. Anne herself lost her mother when she was a baby, and her father while kind is distant and wrapped up in his work; so there is a hole in both their lives that needs filling which speeds the comfort they find in each other.

The novel is set in the mid 1970s, and as the situation in Cambodia worsens, Serey feels the need to return to his home country to search for his parents who were most likely victims of the Cambodian genocide.  Between the years of 1975 and 79, 1.7 million lives were lost in the killing frenzy of Pol Pot.  Serey leaves Anne behind and becomes one of the disappeared.

Eleven years go by, Anne goes to University, enters into other relationships and tries unsuccessfully to forget Serey.  One day watching a news story about Cambodia, she is convinced she spots him in a crowd.  Impulsively, she leaves behind her life in Montreal, flies to Phnom Penh, and makes it her mission to find Serey.

Echlin writes of Cambodia so realistically and sensually that the reader feels she/he has entered another world, a beautiful and exotic one that is filled with the suffering and depravity fashioned by the Khmer Rouge.  It is country trying to regain meaning and its footing in the world.

Anne finds and loses Serey three times, refusing to give up the life they have fashioned for themselves.  She is helped by some lovely gentle Cambodians and an ex-pat Canadian doing charity work among the wounded.  Anne writes this story as a memorial to Serey, just as Echlin has dedicated the book to Vann Nath who entreats her to "Tell Others."

I highly recommend this book for its superior writing, though the story is a painful one of a young woman's determination to find the man she loves and a story which depicts the cruelty and madness of the killing fields.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

THE BLESSING by Nancy Mitford (fic)

Nancy Mitford, the eldest of the famous Mitford sisters, is known for her brilliant books of social satire.  Her most famous being "Pursuit of Love," and "Love in a Cold Climate."  These books and characters are thinly veiled accounts of growing up in her eccentric and unique English family.  In her writing, Mitford carries on the long and penetrating British tradition of poking fun at social mores, perfected by Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, P.G. Wodehouse, et al.

While "The Blessing" is not as widely read as her other books, it has all the flavor of the best of them.  I wonder if this book could be written today in our age of political correctness and woman's lib.   Rather than seeing it as the social satire it is, Mitford might be lambasted for presenting old-fashioned ideas of woman and national traits.  Instead, we are more tuned to expecting similar observations on t.v. from Saturday Night Live and numerous sit-coms.

"The Blessing" was written in the mid 20th century and presents a hilarious picture of the foibles of Americans, English and French socialites and want-to-be's."  Grace Allingham, an upper class English rose meets an aristocratic French soldier during World War II.  They fall in love, marry, produce a child, the blessing of the title, and are separated by the war for seven years.  When they finally reunite, Charles-Edouard de Valhubert spirits Grace, son Sigi, and domineering Nanny off to the French countryside and then to Paris.  The plot of the book is moved along by Sigi who has turned into a monstrous child unable to be reigned in by Nanny, a complaining old biddy who is frozen in her Englishness.  There are all kinds of odd English, French and American characters floating in and out of the lives of the Valhuberts.

It turns out that Charles-Edouard has a weakness for pretty women, Grace is jealous, Nanny is trying to control the household and Parisian high-society is full of gossips and dinner parties. Sigi has perfected the art of causing just enough trouble to keep him spoiled and in turn doted upon by both parents and those who are trying to impress his parents.  Through his meddling, Sigi eventually causes his parents to separate by playing one off the other.  Never fear, he does get his comeuppance.

This is not a book to be taken seriously, but as an enjoyable satire, full of typical British humor where pretentiousness is revealed as buffoonery, and all's well that ends well.  I laughed my way through it and not for a minute found it dated.  Penguin vintage books reissued it in 2011.

Monday, November 24, 2014

THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE by Orhan Pamuk (fic)

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 and subsequently wrote this novel. Pamuk has been rightly praised for his meticulous writing style. This book has been beautifully translated from his Turkish to English by Maureen Freely.

This is a story about a love that lasts a lifetime, an obsessive love by a 30 year old man named Kemal for Fusun an 18 year old distant cousin.  The story takes place in 1975 in Istanbul.  I have never been to Istanbul, but after reading this book, I felt as if I knew the city intimately.  Pamuk even includes a city map of the area where the story takes place;  Pamuk is good at placing the reader in a city he so obviously loves.  The 70s was an interesting decade all over the world, and in Turkey the youth were breaking away from old family traditions and identifying themselves as European, that is, if they came from the privileged wealthy class.

Kemal who is from a wealthy family is engaged to Sibel, also a child of privilege.  She is educated, fashionable and part of the same social circle as Kemal.  It would seem they are destined for each other.  Then one day by chance, Kemal enters a shop where the strikingly beautiful but lower class Fusun is working.  It was love at first sight, a passionate absorbing love that began to interfere with Kemal's daily life.  Their affair begins almost instantaneously.  They begin to meet in an old and unused apartment that belongs to Kemal's family.  The uneducated and virginal Fusun is very unlike the modern Sibel who takes sexual relationships in her stride as part of the youthful revolution she sees around her.  To Fusun, this relationship must end in marriage, while Kemal, as much as he is obsessed with Fusun, still is thinking like a Turkish man of the times.  He is convinced he can marry Sibel and keep Fusun as his mistress.

This situation is bound to cause trouble, and thus the novel progresses drawing the reader into Kemal's growing obsession and his inability to control the situation.  Fusun leaves Kemal, his relationship with Sibel falls apart and in the year it takes for Kemal to find Fusun, he descends into a depression that almost undoes him.  He finds himself retreating to the shabby apartment and collecting souvenirs of the affair, assembling a museum, glorifying his trysts with Fusun.  He begins drinking heavily and watching the single channel t.v. vacantly.  He loses all ambition and leaves the family business to his brother to run.

During his year of searching for Fusun, Kemal is driven around the city by the family's chauffeur in his father's old 1956 Chevrolet which at that time was a symbol of wealth in Turkey.  Thus the reader is privy to all the scenery of the coastal city on the Bosporus as well as the endless driving through the different sections of Istabul.  Without going into the further details of the story, I can say that after he finds Fusun a further eight years of unfulfilled passion go by.  Kemal and Fusun become enmeshed in a strange dance of manners and mixture of old and new social mores.  Kemal's obsession begins to weary and grate on the reader.  This part of the book could have been made shorter without losing the thread of the story or the sense of the characters.  I began to long for the end and resisted the temptation to skip ahead to see where this story was leading.

Orhan Pamuk likes to insert himself into his novels and he does so in this story as well, so he enters the story as a character who is a family friend.  It is a little disorienting to the reader, but charming, as it makes the story more real.  The other characters in the book were equally realistic and I felt I knew these people very well and that I was living life with them as I read along.

While I got into the plot and lives of the characters and loved touring though Istambul back in the day, Kemal's obsessive personality got in the way of my total enjoyment of this novel, and I was happy to move on when I closed the last page.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

THE WRONG MOTHER by Sophie Hannah (fic)

I have not read a Sophie Hannnah mystery before, but she has her followers who await each book with anticipation. I found the book has an interesting plot and could have been a much better book than it turned out to be.  

The story opens with the death of Geraldine Bretherick and her young daughter.  Nearby a journal was found that may or may not belong to the dead woman.  What the journal reveals is a woman stressed out with the demands of motherhood and the boredom of keeping house.  She may or may not have murdered her daughter and then committed suicide.  A second plot line involves Sally Thorning who is the narrator of the story.  Sally, also in a moment of stress, trying to juggle the demands of work and raise a small daughter, becomes involved in a brief affair with a man she knows as Mark Bretherick, who may or may not be the husband of the dead Geraldine.  Somehow Sally finds herself in the middle of a police investigation and proceeds to become more interested in solving the mystery than attending to her work and family.  This leads to big trouble for Sally.

The beginning of the book is interesting and shows promise.  To my disappointment, the characters are never well-developed and their actions and dialog do not ring true.   I gather this is not the first time that Sophie Hannah has written about the stress of motherhood.  Is it really as difficult as she makes it out to be?  Not only did I find the main characters uninteresting as people, but the police on the case appear to be woefully incompetent, at times buffoonish.  

Monday, November 10, 2014

ROOM by Emma Donoghue (fic)

Emma Donoghue is a brave writer to take on such a difficult topic told through the eyes of a 5 year old precocious boy named Jack.  "Room" was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was picked as one of the year's best books by "The New York Times."  It won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and  I understand it is soon to be made into a movie.

"Room" is the story of a young university woman who was abducted at 19 and kept prisoner for seven years by an obviously demented man whom we only know as Old Nick.  She and the young child she bore were kept in an 11 by 11 foot room which became their whole world.  This world is everything to Jack the narrator who calls his mother, Ma.  The reader soon feels the claustrophobia of being a prisoner and living in fear.  Despite this fear, Ma has made an environment for Jack that shields him from the ugly truth of his world.  She invents games for him to play and devises exercises for him to keep him healthy.  Jack has no playmates other than Ma, and he has invented an imaginative country where objects become friends and all have names.  He is secure without knowing  his mother is living in horrifying conditions.  Both Ma and Jack are dependent on Old Nick who knows Jack is his child, but doesn't want to see him.  Jack is sent into the cupboard whenever Old Nick enters the room.  As the author is Irish living in Canada, I was deep into the story before I realized it takes place in America where there have been several real life long term abductions which recently have been in the news.

The second half of the book takes place in what Jack calls The Outside.  If I go further into the plot it will be a spoiler.  But I can tell you that new characters enter the story including Jack's grandmother.

On one level the book is a study of what happens to the psyche of someone kept prisoner for a long period of time, deprived of human interaction,and in the case of Jack someone who has never known another person besides his Ma.  On another level it is a testament to the love between a mother and child.  And in yet another level it is a story of society's inability to fully understand what being a solitary prisoner can do to a person and the long term stress it produces.

Emma Donoghue has written a terrifying yet absorbing story which is full of hope and the power of love.  It is a memorable tale that will stay with the reader long after the final page is read.  She is a masterful writer, and I highly recommend this book to all readers.  Reading groups will find much to discuss and contemplate.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

WE NEED NEW NAMES by NoViolet Bulawayo (fic)

Bulawayo is a young writer born and raised in Zimbabwe who speaks with an authentic voice about her country and the United States her adopted country.  "We Need New Names" was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Pen Hemingway award.

The story begins in Zimbabwe, post-revolution, and about half of the novel takes place there.  In this part of the book, Bulawayo speaks with her strongest voice.  The reader meets Darling, a young girl and the narrator of the story.  She and her educated family have been ousted from from their homes and relocated in a town of small tin shacks called Paradise.  Here she roams freely with her childhood friends, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows,Sbho and Stina.  The children have their own set of rules; their favorite place to go is the rich suburb, a mixture of wealthy blacks and white colonials.  Here they steal guava fruit from the abundant gardens of the city they call Budapest.  Darling and her friends have made up fantasy names for their environs and beyond.  These children, disadvantaged and dirt poor, are children of the modern age.  They know pop culture; they have been exposed to movie stars and rockers through the internet and t.v. They know where the wealth lies, and they have been exposed to the horrors of AIDS, disease, murder, and warfare.  They see the Chinese move in and create factories and begin yet another cycle of colonial overlords.

Darling eventually leaves all this behind to live with an Aunt in Detroit which she and the children call Destroyedmichygen.  The second half of the book, not as interesting and less colorful than the first, tells us of Darling's adjustment to modern living and her disenchantment with American culture.  She often longs for her African life and the dichotomy of both extreme poverty, yet the freedom to roam at will, denied to her in America.  Her aunt is married to a Ghanaian man whose culture is quite different than Darling's family, a reminder of the diversity of cultures in the different African nations.

There are many terrific young writers coming out of Africa.  Darling's observations of America, seen through her juvenile eyes, are quite different than those experienced by the older narrator in the novel, "Americana," though both authors have emigrated from Africa.  NoViolet Bulawayo speaks with a clear authenticity and, at times, a brilliant voice.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

THE CHILDREN'S BOOK by A.S. Byatt (fic)

A.S. Byatt won the Booker Prize for her book, "Possession." "The Children's Book" was also short-listed for the same honor.  What an interesting book this is.  Byatt loves to weave in amongst her stories other stories, sometimes fey and full of goblins and fairies and otherworldly creatures.  This is an immense book with a double plot that forges ahead and doubles back to remind the reader of dark forces and places characters can disappear into.  As I was reading I was reminded of the books of E. Nesbit who wrote for children at the the turn of the 19th century.  I loved her old fashioned books when I was a child and read them all over and over.

"The Children's Book" is a story of four families, all connected, and there are so many characters to keep track of that the plot becomes unwieldy at times.  The thing is, though, I really began to care for these characters.  I wanted to know their fate.  It takes place from 1895 through World War I.  It is hard to see these children grow and know the battlefield awaits them when they are entering adulthood.  Byatt is masterful at creating the atmosphere and setting of the Edwardian Age.  Often real people enter the story along with the fictitious characters and interact with them.  This is the age also covered by Downton Abby and I can easily imagine a similar series being made from this novel.
Everyone in the book has a secret and an imaginative and colorful inner life.  They are immersed in the history of the period and have plenty to say about it.

All of the families but one are involved in the Arts and Crafts movement and espouse Fabian socialism as an alternative to the profligacy of the Edwardian period.  The characters are portrayed with great detail and reality.  The Wellwoods live in a large home called Todefright in Kent and Olive Wellwood writes dark fairy tales.  These influence the upbringing of her 7 children, especially her beloved son, Tom.  The Fludd family barely subsist, Benedict being a ceramist with various Pre-Raphaelite beauties floating in and out of the ramshackle country house they live in. Prosper Cain and his family life in apartments in what became the Victoria and Albert Museum.  The other Wellwood clan are prosperous bankers and have no use for the liberal and sexual freedom practiced by the other families. The book is filled with historical data and the fairy stories of Olive weave their way in and out of real events as well.

This is a huge book with much to ponder.  It is too scattered with too many plots to follow.  Nevertheless, Byatt is a wonderfully imaginative, gifted writer.  I found myself fully immersed in the lives of the many characters and learned a bit of history as well. I would like to see it made into a t.v. series.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by Elena Ferrante (fic)

Elena Ferrante has received a lot of praise and print space lately with the publication of the third book in her Neapolitan trilogy which may have a fourth book added.  "My Brilliant Friend" is the first book in the series.  This novel is just as brilliant as the title.  It is a beautifully written and finely drawn story about female friendship and growing up poor in southern Italy.  It is an extraordinary book that the reader will devour quickly despite its length, savoring every moment of delicious reading.

This is the story of the life long friendship of two young girls, Elena and Lila, in 1950s Naples.  The area of the city they live in is like a small village whose inhabitants never leave.  They speak in their own dialect, and even those who go to school and learn classic Italian speech revert to their own patois when among their friends and family, or when they have something important or emotional to convey. The families in this village are deeply entwined through marriage and close living.  They know each other's business, they gossip and feud and have strong opinions.  Enmity and offense last through generations, and they strongly feel their cultural separateness from Italians north of Naples.  The story is filled with the violence of their lives, with jealousy, love, celebration and sadness. There is a sense of guilt left over from World War II and the shame of families who profited by the war.

Without giving away the plot, there comes a time when the girls take separate paths in their lives.  Their friendship, however, survives.  To break out of the culture they were born into is difficult and each tries to do this in a different way.  They are daughters of poor and simple folk who fear change. The story is narrated to the reader by Elena who carries the same name as the author.  While she clearly feels inferior to Lila and defers to her throughout the story, it becomes clear to the reader, that both girls are brilliant and that Elena grows wise in a different way from Lila.

There is some mystery surrounding the author, Ferrante.  As the author has never granted an interview in person, there is speculation that the author is a male.  It is difficult to imagine that a male could enter so thoroughly into the mind of the female characters who are so truthfully drawn. I believe the author can only be a female.  Women who read this novel will find the lives of these young girls as real as their own. That is not to say men cannot enjoy the novel as well.  This is not chick lit.  It is a beautifully written story that will stay with the reader for a long time and leave her or him looking forward to the next book in the series.  I highly recommend this novel to all who love good literature. There is much to discuss for book groups as well.

THE PAST by Neil Jordan (fic)

Neil Jordan has written several books but is better known as a screen writer.  His most famous movie was "The Crying Game," which caused a sensation when it was released.  I found this book difficult to follow as the author uses a stream of consciousness style of writing, which I don't much care for, perhaps because it requires such close attention.  That said, "The Past" is beautiful in its lyricism.  The characters' thoughts melt into each other, and at times I had to reread passages to understand whose voice was being heard.  Each chapter was narrated by a different character whose mind the reader enters.  Historical characters are mixed with the fictional, and their thoughts are important to the plot. Since the reader discovers the story through each character's thoughts, one is not always sure where the truth lies.

The story opens with a young man who is visiting a beach resort town in Ireland.  There is a mystery surrounding the birth of his mother, and his journey is a discovery into her character and her coming of age.  The plot is built around the struggle for Irish independence.  The story is mainly about Rene, the daughter of Michael and Una O'Shaughnessy the narrators grandparents, and it turns on a postcard he has found among old papers. The O'Shaughnessys were free state heroes, Michael a soldier and Una an actress, a larger than life diva.

The narrator assembles pieces of his mother's history through visits to Lili her best friend and Fr. Beausang, who knew her as a young woman and budding actress.  As the story progresses, truth and fantasy become entwined and what is remembered is not necessarily true.  The narrative becomes confusing as the novel moves on and the ending is not altogether satisfying.  However, if you enjoy stream of consciousness and poetic writing, you may wish to give this book a try.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

THE SWERVE by Stephen Greenblatt (non-fic)

Two thousand years ago a Roman philosopher poet named Lucretius wrote a masterpiece of poetry called, "De Rerum Natura," "On the Nature of Things."  For over 1000 years this beautiful, lyrical poem was lost to the world until Poggio Bracciolini discovered the lost manuscript in a German monastery.  This is the fascinating story that Stephen Greenblatt, a Harvard historian, has chosen to write about.  His story is one of intreague, a quest, philosophy, humanity, and scandal.  Greenblatt has written a number of entertaining non-fiction books.  You may remember "Will in the World" about Shakespeare which came out several years ago.  Greenblatt subjects are varied and always readable.

Poggio was a medieval scribe and scholar of the law who worked his way though the system of the Roman clerical world. Eventually he became secretary to more than one Pope, the most famous of them, John XXIII.  Pope John was a corrupt and venal man who was eventually deposed by a decision of the Council of Constance which voted in favor of a second Pope who was residing in Avignon.  Poggio was in Constance, Germany when he found himself out of a job in 1417.  Being an intellectual interested in ancient manuscripts, he began a quest to find any undiscovered writing from the early Roman era.  Poggio was well-known enough as a master of manuscript writing himself that his name opened monastery doors, and he was given the opportunity to search among rooms of preserved writings.  Among other talents, Poggio was responsible for copyists to move away from the intricacies of Gothic handwriting to a more legible style of penmanship.  In one of the many monasteries he visited, Poggio hit pay-dirt.  He came upon Lucretius' lost poem and recognized it as valuable and important.  He also knew because of its content, it was in danger of being destroyed.

Even in his own times, Lucretius' subject matter was scandalous, and it certainly went against all medieval Christian teaching.  He believed the sun circled the earth; he believed in evolution; and, most amazingly, Lucretius theorized that the world and everything in it, was made up of tiny atoms in constant motion which formed complex structures when they collided against each other.  He also was a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus who believed in living a full life, and that included philanthropy and strong friendships, not just the meaning which has come down to us of eat, drink and be merry.  Though it is true that both Epicurus and Lucretius believed that there is no life after death, and there is no divine intervention in the affairs of mankind.

"De Rerum Natura" is made up of six books of beautiful poetic language.  Because of Poggio's efforts 50 manuscripts from the 15th century survive today.  He had the original copied over and over by himself and others who believed in the value of preservation.  When Herculaneum was excavated, a burnt copy was found in the ruins.  Thomas Jefferson had several copies as did Galileo and Darwin.

This is such a readable book, if you have any interest in history and philosophy, you will want to delve into Greenblatt's narrative.  I recommend this book to all readers.

Monday, September 29, 2014

TATIANA by Martin Cruz Smith (fic)

This is the first book I have read by Martin Cruz Smith.  I know he has quite a following and his books are usually, if not always, on the best seller list.   If you have read his crime novels before, you will know that his detective hero is Arcady Renko a Senior Investigator in the Moscow prosecutor's office.  Mysteries of the thriller genre often feature a hero cop who is damaged in some way or depressed and trying to work out issues in their personal lives.  Arcady is also of this mode. He is a chain smoker and like other fiction detectives is obsessive about the cases he works.

The story begins with a cyclist who is a brilliant translator who has invented a code that appears to be a series of doodles; he writes all his notes in this code.  The translator was working with a mixed group of politicians, gangsters, and crooked businessmen who were formulating a secret deal taking place in Kaliningrad.  The fate of this translator, an avid cyclist, is the catalyst which begins the action.  His fate becomes tied to that of a Moscow investigative journalist, Tatiana Petrovna who has ferreted out the deal.  Breaking the code in the translator's notebook is important in solving the case for Arcady.  His forster son, a chess master, and son's girlfriend lend a clever hand in helping to solve the mystery and find themselves in danger because of it.

I don't want to give away any of the plot,but know that it concerns the Russian mafia, a body missing from the morgue, demonstrations,  political corruption and other events tied to the Putin-era.  Cruz  Smith has used some thinly veiled references in this book to real events in Russia in the recent past.

This type of book is not my favorite read, but it did keep me interested enough to read it quickly.  Renko is likable enough, though most of the characters are one-dimentional.  I would say if you enjoy crime novels, this is good enough for a Saturday evening at home, but not up to the page-turners written by recent Scandinavian writers of mysteries.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

EMPIRE OF THE SUN by JG Ballard (fic)

After a discussion with my son about JG Ballard, he kindly sent me this book knowing I would enjoy it more than the bleak dystopian novels Ballard is known for.  The novel was written in 1984 and has constantly been in print since then.  You may be familiar with the movie which has softened some of the very tough passages in the book.

Ballard was born and brought up in Shanghai (his father was a chemist for a British company) in the very British area known as the Shanghai International Settlement.  Even the imposing houses were copied from British country homes. Ballard draws on his own youthful experiences in this semi-autobiographical novel. The international crowd living in the fancy suburb was still carrying on as if they were in Europe even as the Japanese invade Shanghai during World War II. The contrast between the British going to a costume party on the eve of war and their being driven through the streets to interment camps the following day is startling.

 The young hero, Jim, was a mixture of precocious and naif.  As the book progresses, his character grows in strength and understanding of the true nature of men in war.  When Jim is first brought to the camp called Lunghua, he is convinced that things would get back to normal when the war has ended.  Toward the end of the novel Jim realizes that the world has changed forever and there is no returning to the sheltered live he had lived. Throughout the book, Ballard uses inversion and contrast to give forceful clarity to the feelings Jim and other characters are having.  Jim's character grows in strength and understanding of the nature of men at war as he spends four years in the camp.  Another lesson Jim learned was caring for others.  At first Jim saw opportunity in running errands and cadging food for others.  It was done with a slyness looking for what he could get in return.  In contrast,there is a lovely scene toward the end of the novel when Jim is compassionately caring for Mr. Maxted, an old family friend who is dying.  The narrator states, he finally realized that caring for others is the same as being cared for yourself.

There are a number of horrific scenes of death and suffering of the western prisoners.  Powerful and realistic scenes occur all through the novel.  As I read I could clearly picture the bleakness of the land and the destruction of the countryside around Shanghai which became an empty city of ghosts of its past splendor.  In contrast to the starkness of Jim's surroundings, Ballard uses bright sunlight which illuminates a number of scenes.  One takes place in an unused Olympic Stadium when Jim is tending to Mr. Maxted.  The Japanese knowing they would lose the war, have marched the prisoners out of the camp through hideous heat and dust into the stadium.  There they are left to die and tend to themselves.  Jim sees a fierce brightness in the sky obliterating all color for some moments, and he is later convinced he has seen the atom bomb that leveled Nagasaki when he hears people speaking about it.  Jim has other enlightened moments, one important one takes place as the war is ended and he tends to a dying Japanese pilot.  Jim looks at his hands in the bright sunlight with the dreary dark camp behind him, and he realizes that human hands can be used to save people or destroy them. He begins to understand the surrealism of war.

Besides Jim there are many memorable characters in the story.  Most modeled on real people, some are good like the brave doctor who never flags in his care of the wounded; some selfish like Basie who teaches Jim to grab what he can, which in a strange way, helped keep Jim alive.

As the story nears its end, Jim is disoriented and baffled by its sudden outcome.  He wanders back to the camp looking for the security he found there in the midst of its squalor. He had a place there, he knew how he fit in there.  Now it seemed no one wanted or cared about him.  He soon discovers the secure world he had begun to build for himself had disappeared.

Ballard is an exquisite writer.  I was thoroughly engrossed by the novel, more so knowing it was based on the author's experiences as a boy.  I thought about it and what it told us about humans for weeks after I read the last page.  I highly recommend this book, though it is difficult in its realism.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

DIRTY LOVE by Andre Dubus III (fic)

It is usually best when an author writes about an area or culture that is familiar, rather than one that exitsts only in the imagination. Andre Debus's collection of four novellas takes place in an area that he is very familiar with, as he lives nearby the Newburyport/Amesbury neighborhoods he writes about. You may remember Dubus as the author of The House of Sand and Fog a well received novel that was made into a movie.  He is a gifted writer of love and reality; his characters expose their inner lives in ways that leave the reader acutely feeling their anxiety.  Dubus writes honest stories with characters the reader readily relates to.  You may think, "yes, I know that person, that's the guy or woman down the street.

The four stories in Dirty Love are lightly connected.  You may catch a character or place that has appeared marginally in the previous story.  Each main character is at a place in his/her life that could be a turning point, a chance to change or not.  One story is about a lonely overweight single woman who longs to be like her married friends talking about their children and marriages.  When the opportunity is there for her, does she take the step or not.  In another story a man named Mark who is the managewr of a software company discovers his wife of 20 years is cheating on him.   He hires a detective to follow her.  Mark is frustrated by his desire and inability to regain his former secure life.
A third story concerns a weak bartender named Robert who is living on past laurels of his college years, unable to accept the fact that he is a failed poet.  The final tale, bearing the same name as the title of the book is about a teenaged girl who is mired in self-distructive behavior.  She is involved in on-line sexting that has gone viral.  Her salvation might or might not be through an eighty year old grand-uncle who has lived through a crisis of his own and learned life's answers that the others are still searching for. The mutual affection between the girl, Devon, and her uncle may be the only true love shown in the book.

Each of these stories leaves the reader feeling sympathy and frustration for the characters.  Dubus's settings are as real as his characters.  You know you have been there on New England's north shore.  I recommend this book to all who enjoy excellent writing.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

THE SLEEPWALKERS by Christopher Clark (non-fic)

How Europe Went to War in 1914 is the subtitle of Christopher Clark's thorough examination of the causes and actions leading up to WWI.  The work and scholarship that went into the writing of this weighty tome is more than impressive.  It is almost 700 pages of careful research.  We all know that WWI was precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife.in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.  He was the heir to the Hapsburg Empire and was thought, by those allied to Russia, to be a puppet of Wilhelm II of Germany.  Within 10 days, Russia had taken up arms in support of Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire who were allied with Germany.  By the next month, the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire) were lined up against the Triple Entente (England, France, Russia and later Japan, Italy and Romania).

Clark begins his history much earlier, taking us back to 1903.  His story opens with the murder of Alexander I of Serbia by a terrorist group called The Blackhand.  Thus begins one of many parallels to our world today.  As we see, the Middle East and the whole region of central and Eastern Europe was in turmoil from this period onward.  The Slavic countries of Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Serbs, Slovaks and Croats, were all under the hand of the detested Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Nationalistic factions dedicated to the overthrow of the Empire were springing up all over this area.  The Ottoman Empire which was crumbling was already involved in the Balkan Wars where Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece were taking pieces of their territory, and was also busy on the Eastern front where the Arab nations were doing the same.

As Clark tells us the changes in our own world have altered our way of looking at the events of 1914.  He contends it is much more complicated than just blaming Germany for the war.  He states: One could even say that July 1914 is less remote from us--less illegible--now than it was in the 1980s.  Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers--a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.

This book tells the story of how war came to continental Europe and its central argument is that the events leading to WWI only make sense when we look at the decisions and varied paths taken by the leaders of Europe. As an example, Britain was more frightened of war with Russia than war with Germany. This played out in her alliance with Russia.  The complication of family relations through royal marriages also contributed to the confusion.

If you have an interest in this period of history, than Clark's book is a must for your reference bookshelf.  It has the added advantage of being a well-written account of a fascinating time with numerous connections to our world today. I now view WWI in a different light.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

DANCER by Colum McCann (fic)

Colum McCann is one of my favorite writers; he always chooses to write about interesting characters and usually inserts real characters into his work along with the fictional ones.  Having said that, this is not among my favorite books he has written.  Mainly, this is because it is about a fictionalized Rudolf Nureyev who is an elusive and difficult character to portray, because he is so close to our own time.

At the height of his balletic ability, Nureyev was known all over the world and his fame is still legion.  I was lucky enough to be living in London when he was partnered with the lovely and incomparable Margot Fonteyn and doubly lucky to have seen them dance throughout Nureyev's tenure with the Royal Ballet.  There is nothing that can describe the excitement in the theater when he would burst upon the stage.  It was electrifying!

McCann is an exquisite writer, and the book will hold the reader's attention to the end.  What McCann does so well is set the scene from the story's beginning in the Tatar towns in Uzbekistan to the beautiful St. Petersburg, home of the Kirov Ballet where Nureyev began his professional career.  The descriptions are very real of soldiers returning from WWII when Rudolf was a child, along with the food shortages and the bleak times of Stalin's and then Kruschev's Russia.  There is a particularly touching account of a poorly equipped hospital with its dedicated nurses trying to cope with the returning sick from the war front.  This was the setting of Rudolf's youth when he was taking secret ballet lessons from an exiled couple who had once been premier dancers in Petersburg.  Early on they recognized the talent and drive of the young Nureyev.  It was a long time before his father was able to accept that his son would not be destined for a "manly" occupation.

The reader follows Nureyev's growth from an awkward and powerful beginner to his fame by giving voice to several characters that helped form his character.  As the chapters begin with different voices, it sometimes takes a paragraph to recognize whose voice we are hearing.  I found this interrupted the cadence of my reading.  There is a lot about Nureyev's life after he defected in 1961 and the relationships he formed with men and women.  If you have read one of the biographies of Nureyev, you know he had a huge ego and often displayed a lack of sensitivity toward others.  Others have attempted to analyze his psyche and connect it to his energetic style of dancing.  

The book allows us to imagine Nureyev's relationship with his family and his distance from them imposed by the state of Russia where he was a condemned defector.  McCann also follows Nureyev's descent as he ages and is dying of AIDS in the early 90s, yet he continues to dance as he cannot stop doing so; it is his life.

There is much to digest in this book.  If you have read a biography of Rudolf Nureyev, you may want to read what McCann has made of his fictionalized life.  If you love or are interested in the ballet, you  will enjoy going back in time to revisit an icon of dance the likes of which one may never see again.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

MISSION TO PARIS by Alan Furst (fic)

I am always happy to pick up a book by Alan Furst who is one of the best espionage and spy writers, right up there with John Le Carré.  Mission to Paris, his 12th spy novel, is one of his better reads.  Furst almost exclusively writes of the period between 1933 and 1941 in Europe.  He writes of the underworld of spies, German, English, French, and Eastern European.  His novels range all over the pre-World War II map.

In this book we follow Fredric Stahl, Austrian born American actor, from Hollywood to France where he is making a film.  Stahl is in his early 40s and at the height of his career.  His is apolitical but wary of the Nazi inroads into France and Paris where he is filming.  The German propaganda arm sees an opportunity to use Stahl to impress America which has not yet entered the war.  Lured into a party by a leading German hostess, he unknowingly comes into contact with several German agents masquerading under the aegis of the Comité France-Allemagne.

Stahl is savvy and sophisticated enough to soon sniff out the real motives of his Nazi hosts, and it takes some veiled threats to convince him to attend the Berlin film festival.  His visit there coincides with Kristallnact.  That does it for him, and he feels lucky to arrive back in Paris with his life. The action then shifts to a castle in Hungary where the film company has relocated and there he and others fall into a Nazi trap which turns into an exciting hunt for those on both sides of the battle.

This is a sketchy outline of the plot, but along the way the reader gets Furst's cracker-jack writing.  His description of Paris on the brink of the German invasion is beautiful.  It is a time when people are still attending parties and smoky nightclubs.  His details are accurate and interesting.  For example he includes movies that are playing at local cinemas and a ride in a long lost automobile, a 1938 Panhard Dynamic which has a steering wheel in the middle of the dashboard.  Passengers can then sit on either side of the driver.  Sometimes a character pops up from another book he has written. And, of course, there is romance included.  It is all like a wonderful film noir from the 40s.

If you like good writing combined with espionage and intrigue and you haven't read a Furst novel, give it a try,  You will be hooked.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

MANSON by Jeff Gunn (non-fic)

The subtitle of this biography is the life and times of Charles Manson.  Some of us remember the summer of love, the Haight, the concerts, the hippies, the riots and Vietnam.  All this was over 4 decades ago. I was living in London at the time, and Helter Skelter was the name of a Beatles song to me, and did not invoke the same fear that gripped Los Angles during the frightening days of the Manson Family's killing spree.

Jeff Gunn has written a very readable book which brings back the upheavals of the late 60s and early 70s.  He was able to unearth new material from the few living witnesses including Manson's sister and cousin.  Many adjectives can be applied to Charles Manson, beginning with worthless.  He is 78 years old now and in some ways still a psychological mystery.  What we do know is that he was a social predator and sociopath who took advantage of the needy, the dependent, the naive, and the drug addled.  He has been in jail most of his life, beginning when he was a young teen in various reform schools, even doing a stint at Boys' Town where he didn't last long.  While imprisoned Manson took an interest in the writings and courses of Dale Carnegie and turned what he learned into a criminal career.

Manson arrived in Haight-Ashbury soon after he was released from one prison stint in 1967.  He looked around, saw and understood the appeal of the street preachers that damaged teens with issues (especially girls) flocked to, and decided he could do it better.  After some initial success and with a small cadre of followers, he debunked to Los Angles, hoping to jump start a singing career.  It is unclear whether Manson was delusional or just gaming people, but he appeared convinced that he would become as famous as the Beatles or Stones by writing and recording his songs.  When that door was finally slammed on him, he found another more dangerous and lethal way to the path of fame.  Soon after arriving in Los Angles, Manson met Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys who enabled him to live the high life while gathering more acolytes.  Wilson introduced him to Terry Melcher, son of Doris Day, who was a record producer.  At that time, Melcher was living with Candice Bergan in the house which later was taken over by Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate.

Much took place between the time Manson and his followers arrived in Los Angeles and the killing spree began.  Gunn not only closely follows the movements of the Family, but also includes the unrest that gripped all of America at that time.  He shows how the political and social atmosphere lent itself to the stew of unrest that made it possible for Manson to imagine himself the future savior of the white race in a coming apocalyptic race war.

While Manson is so distasteful a subject, more of interest to me is what made his followers so slavishly obedient to him. What made the girls he attracted and gathered, who looked so much like the girl next door or a future teacher of America, murder so viciously?  Gunn attempts to give us answers, but the mystery remains.  It all seems so long ago.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

THE LIFEBOAT by Charlotte Rogan (fic)

This is a first book for Charlotte Rogan and she has taken a well-used theme and made a new story out of it.  You might wonder about reading a book where most of the story takes place within the confines of a 37 foot life boat.  Then again, you might enjoy it as I did.  Rogan presents a microcosm of life in a too crowded boat with its alliances and jockeying for leadership and dominance.  She presents a fascinating study of human nature and the desire to survive with moral decisions made by dominant personalities.

Grace Winter and her new husband are returning by steamship to the States on the eve of World War I.  Europe has begun to disintegrate and the Atlantic crossing is a perilous one.  An explosion separates husband and wife, and Grace finds herself thrust into Lifeboat 14 along with 38 others, mostly woman, under the command of John Hardie, a hardened and officious ship's officer.  At first and for several days, morale is kept up by the certainty that they would soon be rescued as they were in a popular shipping lane.  As hope begins to fade, they soon realize that the skiff is too crowded for all to survive.  Food is running out, the seas are running higher and decisions are being made by the dominant characters.  The story becomes one of morality.  Who decides who is saved, who should go?  Should the strongest survive or the weakest?  Grace Winter is a survivor with a strong will to live.  We learn of her background and what has made her the strong personality she is.  The story is told through Grace's eyes and it is unclear that she is telling us the truth as her story unfolds.  We do know she changes alligence between those she perceives to be the strongest, first John Hardie and then Mrs. Grant, an imposing presence.

The story of Lifeboat 14 is sandwiched between that of Grace's background story and what happens after the rescue, when she and two other women are charged with murder and put on trial.  After 21 days at sea and during the subsequent trial, the reader begins to see Grace as manipulative anti-heroine, yet she is so plucky, you will find yourself rooting for her.  Her philosophy seems to be, "God helps those who help themselves."

Though this tale is a dark one, it is a fascinating study of a character who is neither good or bad.  Did circumstances force her to choose survival no matter the cost?  Or, does she twist morality to suit herself?  I recommend this novel to all readers.  There is much to discuss and think about;  it is an excellent choice for book groups.

Friday, August 8, 2014

COUNTRY GIRL by Edna O'Brien. (Non-fic)

Edna O'Brien is one of the great Irish writers of our time. She came of age in the 50s and early 60s and much of her fiction writing reflects the Ireland of these decades.  She is a brilliant writer and this memoir meanders along, much like one's thoughts, looking back on a life which reflects the contradictions of the era.

O'Brien was born in 1930 in Drewsboro, County Clare, a small town which she tells us had three grocers and 27 pubs. Her father was an alcoholic, abusive at times, and early on she rebelled against her provincial Catholic upbringing with its accompanying guilt and shame.  Her great goal was to live and work in Dublin.  After running wild in her girlhood, she arrived in Dublin and obtained a job as a pharmacist's assistant. It wasn't long before she was married at age 23 to Ernest Gebler, a divorced play write, much older than she. The marriage was miserable, yet produced two sons who she loved dearly.

Perhaps, living in an unhappy and abusive marriage herself, writing allowed her an outlet for her strong creative ability.  She soon began selling her work and in 1960 wrote her most well-known novel, Country Girls, which was banned in Ireland, only adding to its notoriety. She became far more successful and famous than her jealous husband who ruled the household with an iron hand, insisting on controlling every penny Edna earned. This stressful situation lasted for 10 years, when she finally decided she had had enough and ran off in London, a courageous move in a time when divorce was frowned on, and difficult to obtain.

The second half of the book invites us to a gossip about her life when she became famous for her stories and masterly writing style.  Many celebrities turn up here.  She had a weakness for married men and carried on with the likes of Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando, Sean Connery (who convinced her to try LSD with disastrous results), Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Samuel Beckett, a fellow Irishman. She charmed Paul McCartneyand Jackie Onassis became a friend and confidant.

Like most of her ex-pat countrymen, she longed to return home and in later years, bought a home in rural Donegal.  She stayed there for ten years through various hardships and a few crises.  Much later, this brilliant restless woman contemplated ending it all on a dreary trip to Singapore.  Happily that depression was brief, and she moved on to other adventures and other writing.  At 78, O'Brien has much more to contribute to the world of letters.  I am so glad I read this autobiography, which I heartily recommend. You might want to read it along with one of her novels. Country Girls is a good beginning point.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

THE GOOD PARENTS by Joan London (fic)

I wanted to like this book more than I did as it received good reviews when it was published. Joan London is a fine writer and her descriptions of rural Australia ring true.  My problem is with the story which though at times interesting, is scattered and delves into the lives of too many characters.  London begins the tale with Maya de Jong an 18 year old who leaves  her small Western Australian town and travels to Melbourne for a taste of the city life. There she finds secretarial work in a small business.  One day she goes off with her boss, Maynard Flynn, and that is the last we hear of her until the end of the story.

In Melbourne, Maya finds digs with an experimental film maker named Cecile.  Her parents Jacob and Toni arrive to visit her and find that she has disappeared.  Why they are called the good parents, baffles me.  Just like Maya, they are passive people.  They make some effort with half-hearted inquiries, but mostly they settle in Cecile's house, and try to find themselves.  Now the story turns to their backgrounds and their youth in the 70s takes center stage.  The story weaves back and forth between Toni's romance with a gangster and Jacob's hippie wanderings.  Thrown in the middle of this is Cecile's story as well as that of Jacob's sister.  Meanwhile these good parents have left Maya's young teenage brother, Magnus, alone to fend for himself in an empty house.  London moves back and forth with these stories.  When Jacob's sister arrives to take care of their Magnus, Toni and Jacob seem strangely uninvolved and thankless.  The reader learns the background of each new character who is introduced in the story.  I, for one, kept wondering what is going on with Maya.

The theme running through the book is that of young adults finding themselves and learning to express themselves and find a niche of acceptance.  This is where the backgrounds of the various characters come into play and allows the reader to compare and contrast the way the characters have handled themselves.  The problem for me is that with the exception of the Jacob's sister and Toni's racketeering boyfriend, the characters we meet are a lethargic bunch.

London's writing and descriptions are lyrical and Toni's story is interesting, though the ending of the book was lackluster, since I could not find myself engrossed or caring about the characters.  I was hoping for better.

Friday, July 11, 2014

MAKING MASTERPIECE by Rebecca Eaton (non-fic)

If you are a fan of Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theatre) you are sure to enjoy Rebecca Eaton's account of her years as the Executive Producer of this long-lived and much loved Public Television production.  It tickles me that she has the same last name as Eaton Place which was the Knightsbridge home on the first big hit of Masterpiece Theatre, Upstairs Down Stairs in 1974.  The history of Masterpiece began with The Forsyte Saga and Joan Wilson who preceded Rebecca Eaton.  That was the start of the importation of British period piece dramas that is still going on with today's wildly popular Downton Abby.

Eaton begins her story by writing a memoir of her life, growing up in New England, after graduating from Vassar, and doing an internship for the BBC in London.  The stars were aligned for Eaton, a pronounced Anglophile, who brought her love of British costume drama home to Boston.  She was hired by WGBH and began working with Joan Wilson who taught Eaton the ins and outs of program production and how to make use of the contacts in Britain she had begun to forge.  When Wilson died, Eaton was a natural to take her place.

After Eaton snagged Alistair Cooke to host Masterpiece Theatre and the sponsorship of the Mobil Corporation, the program's golden age began.  And, so begins a series of stories which will bring back wonderful memories of the beloved series we watched through the 70s, 80s, 90s and into the new century.  Just reading the titles of the many programs and the actors and actresses who went on to become major stars brings back he pleasure of Sunday night viewing.  You can make your own list, but begin with Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Helen Mirren, Daniel Radcliffe, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, etc.  The golden age was during the tenure of Alistair Cooke and Vincent Price who hosted Masterpiece's cousin, Mystery.  After Cooke retired, there was a period, especially after Mobil withdrew its support, when things began to look grim for the program.  Then along came Downton and the rearranging of Masterpiece into three series a year: Masterpiece Classic; Mystery; and Masterpiece Contemporary.  This saved the program which is poised to begin another surge of popularity.  To think that Rebecca Eaton almost passed on Downton Abby because WGBH had  previously committed to a pre WWII version of Upstairs Downstairs. 

Beside reading about my favorite programs and actors, I learned how difficult it is to produce a high quality program along with the backbiting and one-upmanship that goes on in t.v. land.  Eaton's job is made more difficult by the constant need to attract sponsors and raise money from the generous supporters of public television where major funding for many top notch programs still comes from "viewers like you."  If you recognize that phrase, you know how annoying and how necessary campaigns for public contributions are.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

TOBY'S ROOM by Pat Barker (fic)

Pat Barker has written another thoughtful and compelling novel about World War I and how it changed the life of  all who managed to survive.  In my opinion Barker is one of the most outstanding novelists who writes of this era.  This book lives up to her previous trilogy in which some of the same characters appear.  She has a masterful way of including both real and fictional characters that seems perfectly natural.  Beside the main characters, Virginia Woolf and some of the Bloomsberries appear as well as Henry Tonks the physician and war artist.  In fact, the title of this novel, Toby's Room is much like Woolf's Jacob's Room, in which  Woolf writes about her  dead brother Thoby, which is another connection.

Barker's story opens in London at the Slade School of Fine Arts where Elinor Brooke is enrolled as an art student studying anatomy and drawing under Henry Tonks.  At first we are given some background of Elinor's family, especially her intense relationship with her brother Toby. As in Barker's other novels of war, we see the sad effect it has both physically and psychologically on the characters in the book.  Elinor has a relationship with two soldiers who were art students in her class before they went off to France.  Both Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville play important roles in the novel.  Toby Brooke is equally important, but we only discover his story after his death.  Elinor is obsessed with finding out how and why Toby has died in France, and Kit Neville is the only one who knows. 

Neville is horribly disfigured when he returns to London to receive treatment at Queen Mary's Hospital which specializes in reconstructive facial surgery to repair war wounds.   Meanwhile, he is keeping secret Toby's death and what he know about it.  We begin to learn, through his morphine dreams and shell-shocked memories, what really happened on the battlefield.

Henry Tonks who in real life, worked at St. Mary's as a surgeon and artist, created a portfolio of drawings of his patients that he and other physicians used in their work. There is a web site devoted to these paintings that can be accessed today.  In the novel Tonks convinces the talented Elinor to assist him in his portraiture. 

The climax of the novel takes place in a violent storm on the Suffolk coast where Paul and Kit stay for the weekend.  After a bout of heavy drinking, Paul learns the truth from Kit and how his story is entwined with that of Toby's and how Toby met his end. 

I highly recommend this book to all. It is not necessary to have read Barker's previous novels to enjoy this book which stands alone.  It is a thought provoking and absorbing novel.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

LONGBOURN by Jo Baker (fic)

I immensely enjoyed this book.  What Jo Baker has done with this novel is to build on Jane Austin's great novel, Pride and Prejudice which suits as the background to the story of the everyday life of the servants in the Bennets home, Longbourne, in Hampshire.  Baker is not pretending to be Jane Austin or to copy her writing.  Instead she has written a thoroughly entertaining novel that shows us the unglamourous side of the Bennet household.  The downstairs action is simultaneous with that of the drama upstairs.  The four servants and later a footman have their own drama that is every bit as engrossing as that of the Bennet girls and perhaps a tad more realistic of life in the 1820s. 

As the novel opens, the overriding concern of the servants is the visit of Mr. Collins, a cousin, who is likely to inherit Longbourne when Mr. Bennet dies, as there is no male heir in the Bennet family.  This is worrying to the servants as Mr. Collins, without a by-your-leave, could turn them out and replace them with his own people.  As you read on in the novel, you are always aware of how the story turns out for the Bennet family (if you haven't read the Pride and Prejudice you have most likely have seen one of the many dramatizations).  What you don't know is how these events affect the family living downstairs.  They are not related, except for Mr. and Mrs. Hill, but they form a caring group, closer than many families of the age.  Besides the Hills, there are Sarah and Polly, both of whom come from the local poorhouse as young girls, and James who was hired as a footman/coachman.  All these characters are overworked.  Mrs. Bennet, the high-strong mother,  is reliant on Mrs. Hill who has some mysterious connection to Mr. Bennet.  The entire house, up and downstairs is full of secrets that will keep you reading.  And, those charming young ladies we all love in the original book, leave lots of dirty laundry around for Sarah to clean.  Tromping through the fields and mud and rain, is not romantic when you are the one responsible for the washing and ironing.  Jane Austin's characters move about on the periphery of the servants' lives.  We meet them all, but they play very small rolls in the book.

 Like its parent book, a love story makes this novel interesting.  Sarah is bright, charming, brave and every bit as independent and definite as Elizabeth Bennet. James's story is central to the plot and affects all the other characters in one way or another. His early life gives the reader a realistic look at the Spanish campaign and army life.  Lively little Polly is almost led astray, and old Mr. Hill is keeping his own secrets.

All in all, the story moves apace, and the reader will find the book hard to put down.  I highly recommend this book to all who love Jane Austin and would like a different take on life in the Bennet home.  It is also a good choice for book groups, who may like to compare and contrast it with Austin's novel. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A TRAIN IN WINTER by Caroline Moorehead (non-fic)

In January 1943, 230 Frenchwomen were deported from occupied France to Birkenau, the women's section of Auchwitz.  The youngest was 16, a schoolgirl who was accused of writing Vive les Anglais on the walls of her lycee.  She was put on the only train, during the entire four years of German occupation, to take women from the French Resistance to the Nazi death camps.  Most of these women were professionals and intellectuals who put their lives on hold to play important roles in the resistance movement.  They were mothers, grandmothers, dentists, doctors and teachers. While many of the women arrested were members of the communist party, they were not alone in resisting the occupation and Petain's so called  "free zone."  Acts of rebellion were being carried out by Catholics, Jews and Gaullists all over France.  There was a war within the war going on daily with the French police who were diligent in tracking down and imprisoning the resisters.

Of the 230 French women, thirty-four of them communists, who had left Paris twenty-nine months earlier on the death train, had lived to see the end of the war.  a hundred and eighty-one of their friends and companions had died, of typhus, brutality, starvation, gassing;  some had been beaten to death, others had simply given up.  Not one who had been over the age of 44, and very few of the younges, were still alive.

In 2008, Caroline Moorhead decided to go in search of the women who had left Paris on that train 65 years earlier and see if any might have survived and be alive to tell the tale.  She discovered seven of the women still alive who were in their 90s.  Three were too frail to be interviewed, but Moorehead was able to meet and talk with their families.  Four of the women were able to tell their stories.  And what tales they tell, of the French prisons called chateaux de la morte lente (slow death), of the hunger they felt, of the ways they found to keep spirits up, the sharing and the caring for each other.  The reader learns how the friendship and compassion these women had for each other, helped them survive the tortures and death that they faced every day, up until the final horror of arriving at the death camp. 

The first part of the book describes the resistance movement and the ways they were able to evade detection.  Many characters are introduced and it is a little difficult to keep them straight.  The second part of the book, tells much of their suffering in prison and the friendships that were forged there.  This is where the reader gets to know the character and strength of these women.  Throughout the book, Moorhead has inserted many photos of happy families and women smiling during the good times between the two world wars.  This allows the reader to feel closer to the women as their stories unfold.  There is also an appendix that lists all the women deported and brief facts about each.

It is not easy to read of these brave women and know that most did not survive to return to their children and families.  It is a sad book in the end, admiring these brave people and knowing how they suffered and met their end. It is a valuable record of a valiant group dedicated to freedom and decency in the face of the insurmountable difficulties of an occupied nation.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

HARVEST by Jim Crace (fic)

Jim Crace is an interesting author.  He writes of the everyday lives of people who lived long ago and far away with such skill, that the reader becomes immersed in a time that seems as real as today.  In Harvest he takes a microscope to life in an isolated medieval village with all its poverty and superstitions.  We don't find out why this village is so isolated or why it is losing prosperity, nor do we know for certain what century or year this story takes place. 

When we enter the village, it is on a downward spiral, perhaps the Black Death has been there before us, perhaps there were not enough young people left.  We meet our guide, Walter Thirsk, an outsider, who has been living in the village since he was a young man.  He is a widower and had been married to one of the village women. We learn that he came to the village with Master Kent, also a widower, to the manor which he had inherited.  Now with no issue, the manor is soon to be passed on to a thoughtless nephew who has newfangled ideas about enclosing the land and raising sheep rather than farming.  There was a huge world-wide demand for wool at this time, and farms were being broken up to accommodate sheep farming.

As the story opens, three strangers two men and a woman, are camped at the outskirts of the village.  Their presence coincides with the burning of the Master's storage barn and stable.  The strangers were blamed, though blameless, and pilloried in a torturous manner.  The townspeople, already full of anxiety about the looming loss of their land, exact their vengeance on the hapless trio.  Walter Thirsk suffers bouts of conscience as he witnesses the punishment of the trio and witnesses the breakdown of the the social order that has kept the townspeople in check up to this time. What follows shows the reader how readily a tight little society, which has existed and been productive for years, can crumble and fall apart when facing a threat that it has no power to control. 

I found this book interesting, though the ending doesn't resolve all the questions the reader might have.  It leaves one with more questions than answers.  It is an unusual book that will appeal to readers who appreciate what seems an accurate depiction of an old village lost to time.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fic)

I loved this book!  Adichie is a brilliant writer.  I equally enjoyed her previous book, Half a Yellow Sun which won the Orange prize.  There is an absorbing story in her new book as well as a lesson we could all benefit from.  Adichie is never preachy or patronizing, yet she enlightens the reader through the eyes of her characters.  She teaches us a lesson about race and stereotyping and the loneliness of missing love and companionship.  The theme that runs through the book is the difference between Africans and African Americans and how people perceive them without understanding. The setting shifts with the telling of the stories of two main characters who live in Nigeria, Britain and the United States.

The tale opens in Lagos, Nigeria where we meet two high school students Ifemelu and Obinze who fall in love.  They never fall out of love, but they become separated by time, distance and the different paths their lives follow.  We learn about everyday life in middle class Nigerian families in this section of the book.

Ifemelu eventually moves to the United States to further her education.  This is the most interesting part of the book to me, as Adichie shows the reader through Ifemelu that there is a large difference in experience and temperament between American blacks and Africans.  It is not only that their English sounds different, there is a cultural gap as well.   Ifemelu finds her footing in her new country, and she has an affair with a white American who is the brother of a sincere, but clueless blond yummy mummy who has hired her as a nanny.  As Ifemelu grows in her cultural understanding of Americans, black and white, she becomes a well-known and successful blogger on cultural differences among blacks.  She receives a fellowship from Princeton and falls in love with a black professor at Yale.

While Ifemelu is having her awakening in the States, Obinze is having his own experience in Britain where he has gone to further his studies.  Adichice is equally observant of the black cultural experience in London where there is a large population of Jamaicans who are distinct from the Africans who have immigrated to England. Obinze is less outspoken than Ifemelu who never hesitates to voice her strong opinions.  Unlike Ifemelu who holds a green card in America, Obinze is an illegal in London and he eventually is found out and deported.  When he arrives back in Nigeria his life takes a turn for the better, and as the years go by that separates the former lovers,  he becomes a successful businessman and property developer.  He marries and fathers a child.

After her relationship with the professor falls apart, Ifemelu makes the decision to return to Nigeria.  Now as a adult, she is seeing her countrymen through eyes that have seen the world in a different light.  The society she enters into is one not unlike that of the American nouveau rich where there is one upmanship, jealousy and jockeying for social position.  In Lagos she finds a pecking order not so different than its American counterpart.

Adichie turns a critical eye equally on Britain, America and Nigeria. Through Ifemelu's blog, she is unsparing but honest in her commentary.  Much of the book is drawn on Adichie's own experiences.  This novel tells a fascinating story of love and loss and humanity.  I highly recommend it to all readers, and it will evoke an interesting discussion in reading groups. As an aside, I just read an article that said the book will be made into a movie staring Lupita Nyong'o who was an Academy Award winner this year.

Monday, June 23, 2014

BLUE MONDAY by Nicci French (fic)

Nicci French is the pen name of a husband and wife writing team, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. Blue Monday is the first book in a mystery series which features Freida Klein, a psychotherapist. This gives the book a different slant, having a physician rather than a detective as the sleuth.  I enjoyed this book, and I will certainly look forward to reading the others in the series. It is a good summer book, full of suspense and odd characters.

The story opens in 1987 with the tale of two young sisters, on the way to a sweet shop.  Joanna Vine, the younger sister disappears when her older sister, Rosie, is distracted in the sweet shop by a friend.  Joanna is never found, leaving the detective in the case, frustrated and unable to let go of the unsolved mystery. 

The story then switches to 2009 when Freida Klein, when treating an anxiety patient named Alan Dekker, becomes suspicious of his stories of dreams and seeming fixation on children.  Alan suffers from panic attacks and compulsions he cannot seem to control.  While he is being treated by Freida, another young child, Matthew Farady goes missing in an eerily similar circumstance to that of Joanna Vine.

Working with DCI Malcolm Karlsson and her medical mentor Reuben McGill (a burned out psychiatrist) Freida puts herself in danger as she pursues answers to the mysterious disappearance of Matthew which she is convinced is connected in some way to the earlier kidnapping.

The book is well written and plotted.  It is a page turner and will leave you ready to delve into the next book in the series, fittingly called Tuesday's Gone.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton (fic)

Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize this year for The Luminaries.  Because it is such a unique novel, it stands alone and cannot be categorized as a certain genre.  Earlier this year, critics suggested that Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch was Dickensian in its story telling.  I never bought that comparison.  Equal to Tartt's in length, Catton's novel is more deserving of the comparison.  It certainly reads like a Victorian novel, but one without the cloying sentimentality of many writers in that era.

The story takes place in New Zealand (Catton's country) in about 1866 in a setting that seems akin to the rough American frontier towns spawned by the gold rush.  Hokitika in New Zealand's southwest is also experiencing gold fever.  Hokitika has its saloons, cheap hotels, brothels, a bank, a jail, and a mansion or two.  At the heart of the story is a mystery that is slowly revealed as the book moves toward its climax. The book is filled with disparate characters drawn together by their thirst for striking it rich.  As time goes on, each character is exposed, and the reader begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together once he/she gets beyond the misunderstandings and lies that bind the characters together. You must look sharp to unravel the mystery though, as the truth is revealed in bits and pieces going back and forth in time.  At the novels center, is a fortune in gold sewn into four gowns whose ownership is in dispute. 

The story opens at the Crown Hotel in the smoking room where 12 men who all play an important part in the book are gathered together.  Here is where our tale unfolds. Each section of the book is introduced by an astrological calendar that I did not understand, and I did not take the time to research, though I wonder if they give clues to solving the book's puzzle.  Like all frontier towns, the population was made up of young men eager for a fresh start. Standing in for the reader is a Scotsman named Walter Moody, a barrister whose greatest moment, in his young 28 year old life, is conducting the defense at a trial at the end of the book. As the trial proceeds, the reader begins to find answers to who is telling lies, who is innocent, who is guilty. 

Also at the heart of the book is a love story, though the lovers, Emery Staines and Anna Wetherell, are separated throughout most of the novel. A lonely man who dies in a remote cottage, a politician, a scheming madam named Lydia Wells who claims to be the dead man's wife, a Maori jade trader, two Chinese men, each with his own motives for being there, all these people are cause and effect in moving the story towards its ending.

All this is much too complicated to try to explain in any coherent manner.  You must read the book and find your own meaning.  If you like meandering Victorian novels in the manner of Dickens and mysteries like that in Our Mutual Friend or Edwin Drood, you will like this book.  It is a masterpiece of style and language.  If you are not fond of long novels which you must think on to find answers, run away; you will not enjoy this book.  As for me, I liked it very much, though I found the ending somewhat abrupt and not altogether satisfying.

Monday, June 9, 2014

THE BEAN TREES by Barbara Kingsolver (fic)

Although I have read several Kingsolver books, I had never read her first book, The Bean Trees. It is interesting to see her promise as a writer in this first effort.  Kingsolver has a way of teaching her readers a lesson about nature and human feeling that never sounds preachy.  Her causes are important ones.  As in her later books, her prose is rich, realistic and as vivid as the Arizona sunshine that is the setting for this novel.  She is an expert in character dialogue, the colorful speech patterns and language of the south country.

Taylor (a name she invents for herself) Greer has had enough of her small Kentucky home town and finding herself stuck in an unrewarding job decides to pull up stakes and take a road trip across the country.  She more or less tapes her old heap of a car together and sets out.  She has a bit of Cherokee in her, and she imagines herself finding luck in Oklahoma. Instead she finds Turtle, or rather Turtle finds Taylor.  Turtle is an abused and deeply silent Cherokee child who finds her savior in Taylor.  Deciding Oklahoma is too flat and monotonous Taylor heads toward Arizona where a flat tire leads her to discover Mattie, a sort of den mother to immigrants on the road north.  Mattie owns Jesus Is Lord Used Tires in Tucson. Taylor is a truthful, honest and clear-thinking country girl.  Mattie takes her under her wing along with a house full of Guatemalan illegals.  Taylor is employed by Mattie who can't say no to anyone who needs help and direction. Once settled in, Taylor makes friends with Lou Ann, a young mother whose husband deserted her.  The two women and their children make a home as best they can, though they live on a shoestring.

Taylor and Turtle fit in well in Tucson, and though the book wallows in a bit of sentimentality that beggars belief at times, the story is interesting and engaging.  I wouldn't say this is Kingsolver's best work, but if you haven't read this one and are a fan, you will find it an uplifting summer read.

Friday, May 30, 2014

S IS FOR SILENCE by Sue Grafton

I was looking for some light reading and mysteries are usually a quick read as one becomes absorbed in solving them.  I have never read Sue Grafton and picked this book up at a library sale.  It was written in 2005, and those who are Sue Grafton fans will recognize that it is part of the alphabet series she has made her own genre.  I believe all her books end up on the best seller list as Grafton has a legion of fans.

The story revolves around a flamboyant woman in a small California town named Violet Sullivan who disappeared in 1953 with her little dog and a stash of cash.  Violet had a penchant for the color she was named after and a thirst for liquor and men.  The story moves back and forth between 1953 and 1987 which is the year her daughter Daisy hires Kinsey Milhone (a reoccurring character of Grafton's) to finally solve the mystery that has bedeviled her for most of her life.

I found the book to be standard mystery fare following the pattern of a whodunit formula. There is the usual small town characters with several red herrings thrown in, mostly men who had relationships with Violet.  There is the threat of danger to our brave detective. The characters are superficially drawn without much descriptive detail or depth in their relationships.  They could easily inhabit a graphic novel. 

If you are a Sue Grafton fan you will like this book for it moves along with enough twists to keep you interested.  The ending wraps up neatly with no gasps of surprise.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

DOUBLE CROSS by Ben Macintyre (non-fic)

Macintyre has written an entertaining account of Operation Fortitude, a large scale attempt to fool the Germans into mistaking the plans for the D Day invasion of Normandy.  It was formulated to cause the Germans to believe that the actual landing would take place far north of Normandy in the Pas de Calais area. The account of these shenanigans reads like a British comedy, at times Monty Pythonesque.  The cast of characters is priceless. 

In his introduction, the author states that the oddball spies who were recruited to execute this plan were one of the oddest groups of military units ever assembled.  They included a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a mercurial Frenchwoman (of Russian background), a Serbian seducer, and a deeply eccentric Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming. 

This is a story of war, but it is also about the nuanced qualities of psychology, character, and personality; the thin line between fidelity and treachery, truth and falsehood; and the strange impulsion of the spy.  The Double Cross spies were, variously, courageous, treacherous, capricious, greedy, and inspired....One was so obsessed with her pet dog that she came close to derailing the entire invasion.  All were, to some extent, fantasists, for that is the very essence of espionage.  Two were of dubious moral character.  One was a triple, and possibly a quadruple, agent.  For another, the game ended in torture, imprisonment, and death.

The absurd notion that this group of turned spies could effect a complete pulling the wool over the German eyes, beggars belief.  But, somehow in a comedy of errors, they did.  Operation Double Cross under the leadership of a MI5 agent named Tommy Argyll Robertson who masterminded the ruse, was part of a larger plan called Operation Fortitude, in which a phony army of American and British, were able to make the Germans believe they were amassing in areas nowhere near their actual bases.  This included hallow models of planes, barracks, armaments and supplies.  It is all quite amazing, but certainly possible in this time before satellite spying and Internet bugging.  One interesting sidelight concerns Anthony Blunt who was later exposed as a Soviet mole.  He was part of the Double Cross deception at the same time he was feeding information to Stalin and the Russians.

One factor that made this operation successful is that the German counterpart to MI5, the Abwehr, was full of incompetent and corrupt officers who were skimming from the budget allotted by the German government for their spy operations.  It turned out that the Germans were paying so much to maintain these double agents who were working for the British that they spent what would be equivalent of more than 4.5 million pounds today, all the time ignorant of the fact that they were supporting both their own and MI5's spies.

At one point in this saga, there was a scheme that went nowhere, but was hilarious, which used pigeons to infiltrate the German pigeon coops in France which were used for sending messages to the battle front. Another crazy plot involved an actor impersonating General Montgomery who was sent to Spain to further confuse the Germans into mistaking the timing of D Day.

All this and more makes for entertaining reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and it further convinced me that all spies are double agents and straight out the pages of "Spy vs. Spy"  in Mad Magazine.  I recommend this book for any who would like a different take on behind the scenes planning in WWII.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

THIRTY GIRLS by Susan Minot (fic)

In the light of the recent and horrifying kidnapping of 200 young Nigerian girls, this book could not have been written at a more meaningful time.  In 2002, a similar incident took place in Uganda when more than 100 girls were forcibly taken from their school in a rural area. Susan Minot had covered that story as a journalist and has now written a fictionalized account of it. Her seriously important book was published just before the Nigerian girls were taken. The Ugandan rebel who was responsible for the earlier kidnappings was Joseph Kony of the Lord's Resistance Army and he is still at large these many years later. 

Minot alternates chapters in Thirty Girls telling two stories that are intertwined and dependent on each other in unifying the tale.  The first is the fate of the the Ugandan girls who were led away into the bush.  The school they attended was run by Catholic nuns, and on the night the school was attacked and broken into, there were four nuns and only one man on duty.  The Ugandan army had been patrolling the school grounds but were off duty that night.   The Mother Superior, Sister Giula, an Italian of great courage, along with a male teacher, wastes no time in setting out after the girls to try to negotiate their return.  She catches up to the rebels and makes a plea to Captain Lagira, a terrifying creature.  After much false politeness and fearsome threats, he agrees to let all the girls go except 30.  The unfortunate Sr. Giula is told she must choose the girls that will stay behind.  One of these girls is Ester Akello, and it is through her eyes that we learn the fate and the nightmare that follows for these girls.  Ester's voice is so true and so real that we forget that this is a work of fiction as we become caught up in her story.

The other part of the book is about a reporter named Jane Wood who has come to Africa to write a story on the children who have survived the kidnapping ordeal by escaping.  These children, and Ester is eventually one, are placed in a rehabilitation camp in order to help them re-enter a life as normal as possible given the circumstances. Jane became interested in their story when she meet the mother of one of the kidnapped girls at a New York dinner where the mother was seeking aid to help these abused children.

Jane arrives in Kenya and meets up with a free spirited friend who introduces her to a group of like minded friends.  They all decide to travel to Uganda together so Jane can get her story.  Along the way they make stops and find time to party a bit, adventure a bit, and drink a good deal.  Jane finds herself drawn to Harry a young man about 15 years younger than she.  She realizes it is a hopeless romance with no future, but she falls headlong into the relationship anyway.  Minot writes sensitively and realistically about their affair.  In all her books, Minot writes convincingly about human interactions and connections.

The climax of the book occurs when Ester and Jane's stories intersect. Several important actions result from their meeting.  I loved this book.  Even though it deals with a difficult subject that today we are reading about daily, Minot never wavers from handling the story with care and beautiful writing.  I recommend this book most highly and have urged all my friends to read it.  It is timely, and the story of the two women shows them brave and fearless in their emotions and sense of self.  They finds themselves through the brief time they have together, and both recognize the connection.  This book is a terrific choice for book clubs and all readers.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

WAVE by Sonali Deraiyagala (non-fic)

Deraiyagala has written a sad, brave and honest book about the loss of those she loved the most in the world.  She bares the intense grief the loss caused her which makes this memoir so real and truthful, that the reader feels her pain and wonders how she could endure such unimaginable loss. 

In 2004, on the day after Christmas, a horrifying tsunami born in the Indian Ocean spread over a number of countries causing the deaths of approximately 250,000 people, a number the mind can hardly accept.  We saw the images on t.v. and the destruction that is still in evidence in some areas. 
Sonali with her husband, Steve, two young sons, Vic and Malli, and her parents, was on holiday in the Yala National Park, staying at a beach-front hotel.  Their day began normally enough, and then the nightmare began.  What had been a sunny warm morning, with preparations being made to go to the beach, in a matter of minutes turned violent with a wall of water roaring inland.  Sonali and Steve grabbed the children and ran with no time to check on the parents in another room.  They raced outdoors and jumped into a Jeep that was departing with other guests.  It wasn't long before the Jeep was upended, and Sonali lost consciousness.  When she came to, she was being swept along in the maelstrom, bleeding profusely, and the rest of her family nowhere in sight. 

Sonali was eventually rescued, and after a fruitless search and in a state of shock, she realizes that she is the only survivor in her family. She never saw her husband, children or parents again.  In stark detail Deraiyagala allows us into her world in the aftermath of this tragedy.  She is eventually taken to her aunt's home in Colombo, but there is no recovery for her there.  She descends into a hellish state of depression fed by alcohol, hatred and resentment of those who survived.  Some time goes by, and she finds her brother has leased her parents home to a Dutch family on holiday.  She harasses this family in numerous ways, again fueled by her intense grief.  She goes back to the site of the hotel with her father-in-law in the hope of finding some shred of evidence of their former life.  Miraculously her father-in-law picks up a paper that turn out to be part of a report Steve was working on.  Sonali and Steve were both successful economists.  They met at University in England, married and had their careers and a nice home in London.

It was two years before Sonali could bear to return to London and enter the home in which they had lived.  The description of her re-entry and intense sadness at seeing everything just as it was left on the day they departed for their holiday is difficult to read.  Eventually with support of friends and family, Deraiyagala is able to piece part of her life together and begin recovery.  Seven years after the tragedy, she found some relief in writing this account.  She now teaches at Columbia and lives in Manhattan.

"Wave" was chosen as one of the 10 best books of last year by the "New York Times."  It is an intense book, maybe not for everybody.  It is beautifully written and with such honesty that it is an experience to read it.  Why do we read of another's suffering?  Perhaps it is important to remind us of our blessings and help us to realize that life goes on in the face of tragedy, that people find strength to carry on, and that we help each other through these bad times.  Those we loved and lost are kept alive through the happy memories as the bad memories fade.