Tuesday, December 29, 2015

CALEB'S CROSSING by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is a prolific writer of historical fiction.  She won the Pulitzer Prize for "March," the story of the father in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women."  I have read a number of her books and find that they are all historically accurate and well-researched.  To this she adds an interesting story making them irresistible reading.  Her most recent book is "The Secret Chord," a story about King David which has received mixed reviews.

"Caleb's Crossing" is set in the 1660s on the island of Martha's Vineyard (where the author has her home) and in the Massachusetts Bay Colony on the mainland. As is her wont, the author has chosen to write a story based on real characters who existed in the Puritan era of the English settlement of the American colonies.

We meet Bethia Mayfield through her diaries; she is now an old woman, near death, who has a story to tell us.  Bethia was a young Puritan maid whose father left the Mass Bay Colony of John Winthrop to found a settlement on Martha's Vineyard.  There he set out to convert the local tribe of Wampanoag Indians to Christianity.  Bethia's mother dies, as many women did at that time, in childbirth.  Not only was childbirth precarious, but life for everyone was hard, short, and dangerous.  Children succumbed to disease, the cold, and starvation.  Bethia was eventually left with only her father and one brother, Makepeace, who was a dour sort of fellow, finding little joy in life.  In contrast Bethia is full of life and curiosity, and it is this curiosity which leads her to befriend a young Indian boy.  She struggles with the guilt of being fascinated by the culture and ceremonies of the natives which her strict Calvinistic upbringing has taught her is sinful.  Bethia and the Indian boy who later takes the Christian name, Caleb, form a strong and everlasting bond.  Both characters suffer internal conflicts trying to bridge the gap between their two strong cultural backgrounds.

Bethia being a strong and healthy young woman is destined for marriage while her brother, not nearly as bright as Bethia, is assured a place at Harvard with a future in the ministry.  While stiff as a board, Makepeace is not an unsympathetic character.  He too struggles against his destiny. Caleb (based on a real historical person, the first Native American to matriculate from Harvard) having been converted by the Reverend Mayfield, excels in his studies and joins Mayfield at the College.  The story progresses in Cambridge and we see the boys and learn of their studies through the eyes of Bethia who becomes a servant in their boarding house after the death of her father.

Throughout the book, Brooks uses authentic settings and language.  She does an admirable job of making her characters real people who suffered and lived out their destinies, even as they fought against the paths laid out for them.  The story is full of quiet suspense and sadness like that which Caleb sees for the future of his people.

I highly recommend this book to all readers as a realistic portrayal of the hardships of life in colonial New England, yet also a story of bravery and strength of character in the face of ignorance and harsh living conditions.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


David Kertzer won the Pulitzer Prize for this vastly informative and groundbreaking book.  I remember going to school as a child and seeing a picture of Pius XII on the wall in every classroom.  Little did we know what scheming and nefarious actions this man was responsible for during the time leading up to the Second World War.  Yet, even today when newly opened archives point to the truth, people are still in denial about the role of the Popes and the Church in the betrayal of the Jewish Italian population.  We grew up with the notion that the Catholic Church leaders were enemies of Mussolini and fought bravely against Fascism.  What really happened is recounted in Kertzer's fascinating and well-written history, the subtitle of which is: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe.  It is the story of two men who came to power in Italy in the same year, 1922, and though they met only once, they ruled together for 17 years, largely through a series of go-between emissaries, most notably an unpleasant Jesuit named Tacci Venturi and Cardinal Pacelli who became Pius XII upon the death of Acille Ratti who was Pius XI.

The Vatican and Mussolini had many differences, but antisemitism was not one of them.  The Church used it as a way to advance the faith; Mussolini used it to garner praise and respect from Hitler. This was odd because the Duce was originally Hitler's role model. While the Church did not actively campaign against the Italian Jews, it did turn a blind eye to both Hitler's and the Duce's increasing racial discrimination, in some cases facilitating it through editorials in the Catholic press.  Though Ratti and Mussolini were frequently angry and frustrated with each other, they had more in common than not.  Both were feared by their underlings, and both ruled absolutely, often displaying temper tantrums when they faced opposition.  Both the Vatican and Rome were riddled with corruption which extended down the ranks of each organization.

The crowning achievement of cooperation between the two men was the passing of the Lateran Accords in 1929 which returned power to the Church which had been lost in 1870 when Italy became a a Kingdom. Once again Catholicism became the state religion.  In return, the Duce received the support of the Vatican for his programs and most importantly when he invaded Abyssinia and claimed territory which gave him a base in Africa.  The Catholic clergy in Italy willingly added to the cult of Mussolini mixing up Fascist and Catholic ritual, legitimizing the thugs the Duce set upon the Jewish population.

Eventually Pius XI saw the handwriting on the wall, but it was too late.  He was on his deathbed and had abrogated power to Cardinal Pacelli who pandered to both Hitler and Mussolini, even going so far as to change the wording of the Pope's final speeches.  After the death of Mussolini, Pacelli as Pius XII destroyed many incriminating paper and documents and initiated a cover-up that had lasted into the 21st century when the archives were finally opened on this shameful period in the history of the Catholic Church.

There is so much valuable material in this book, which took Kertzer seven years to write, that the reader must judge for him/herself.  I highly recommend it to all readers.  It would be an excellent book for reading groups; no doubt, it would spark discussion and in some cases disagreement.  "The Pope and Mussolini" is a valuable read which deserved the Puilitzer Prize.  It was also listed as one of the 10 best books of the NY Times for 2014.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore is one of the best of the contemporary American writers.  "A Gate at the Stairs" was chosen as on of the NY Times best books in 2014 and was also in contention for the Orange Prize and  the PEN/Faulkner Award.  By the time I had finished this book, I loved it and its main character.

Tassie Keltjin, a farm girl from the middle America, is possessed with a keen mind and sharp wit.  Her social graces aren't always on display; she is too honest for that.  Tassie's parents are sort of ex-hippies from out East.  They grow boutique potatoes that are in high demand by the artisanal restaurants which are springing up everywhere.  Tassie attends the local University in Troy which is the nearest town to their farm.  Somewhat naive, Tassie is just learning how to read people, and she makes mistakes along the way.  As the fall semester gets underway, Tassie's life becomes entwined with two people who have a profound effect on her growth and understanding.  She falls in love with Reynaldo, a Brazilian boy (or is he ???) she meets at school.  The more profound relationship is with Sarah Brink, who turns out to have a dark past that we don't find out until the climax of the book.

Tassie finds a job as a nanny with the Brinks, a couple about to adopt a mixed-race child. Even when the reader is first introduced to the Brinks, there is a sense of foreboding around them and a certain weirdness in their manner.

  Sarah Brink runs a boutique restaurant which serves up all kinds of pretentious dishes.  Naturally she serves the organic potatoes from the Keltjin farm.  It is the fall of 2001 and the destruction of the World Trade Center intrudes on the lives of our small town characters in ways they could not anticipate.  Before long the reader intuits that under the placid everyday life of our characters lurks secrets: racism, fear, and pretense.  Countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, which once seemed so far away, affect  Tassie and her family when her brother, Robert, joins the army. Tassie becomes very close to the child, Emmie, entrusted to her care as the Brinks are too busy to give her much attention.
As Tassie's awareness and wariness grows, so grows the reader's.

Moore writes gorgeous descriptions full of apt metaphors and similes.  Her character, Tassie, sees with honest eyes and exposes pretensions with humor.  The sometimes loneliness of a college student living alone is spot on.  The scenes which take place on the farm are grounded and real.  Tassie's relationship with her brother and what isn't said between them is heartbreaking.  Finally, Tassie's relationships with her family, Emmie and the Brinks, as well as Reynaldo, teach her about the tenuousness of life and reality hiding in plain sight.

I highly recommend this book to all readers for its insight, humor and good writing.

Monday, November 30, 2015

MINARET by Leila Aboulela (fic)

I enjoyed reading this beautifully constructed and lyrical novel by Leila Aboulela.  It isn't often that I have read a fiction work that helps one understand the cultural difficulties encountered by a young Sudanese girl. Najwa is forced to move to London when her father's corruption is exposed in Khartoum where he was a government official.  The story doesn't dwell on the differences between Najwa and  the English, as much as it does between Najwa and other Sudanese ex pats she encounters in London.

In 1984 Najwa and her family lived in a large home with many servants; they had an opulent life in Khartoum.  They also maintained an expensive apartment in London.  Najwa didn't think much about her countrymen who lived in poverty.  Her family were not religious, lived a western life-style, and traveled to Europe frequently.  She took much for granted including her University education.  She largely ignored the fundamentalist factions at school as she dressed in latest fashion and cultivated other wealthy friends.  Najwa's brother, Omar, ran around with a fast crowd and early on was addicted to drugs.

At school, Najwa falls in love with Anwar, a radical socialist and student leader.  She admired his cool demeanor and agreed with his criticism of religious traditions and clothing like the hijab.  She even ignored his attacks on her father until a coup forces the family to flee when her father was jailed and executed.

At first things remained much the same for Najwa and her family in London.  But, after her mother dies everything changes.  Family money begins to run out, and Omar is arrested for stabbing a policeman during a drug raid.  Before long there is another political upheaval in Sudan, and Anwar's faction is no longer in favor, and he washes up in London.  Najwa and Anwar resume their relationship, and they quickly go through much of the money that Najwa has left.  Alas, their love doesn't survive this downturn in fortune.  Najwa is on the cusp of despair when she meets a woman who convinces her to begin attending the Mosque in Regent's Park.  Najwa slowly rediscovers her Islamic religion, and as she finds support and friendship at the Mosque, she begins to find peace with her situation.

Years go by and we see that Najwa's life changes dramatically as she finds herself taking a job as a Nanny in a rich Muslum household.  She has a complicated relationship with this secular family, and she is drawn to the much younger son who is, like Najwa, a devout Muslum.

As the story evolves, the reader, like Najwa, is not sure what her future holds.  While she finds comfort in religion, Najwa begins to realize some of the binding and claustrophobic rules keep women down and curtails freedoms.  The weakest part of the novel is the number of questions it leaves the reader with regarding Najwa's future and her relationships.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book and the way it caused me to see life through the eyes of a young woman as she struggles to understand her family, her background and her culture.  It offers a good opportunity for a book group discussion.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

FALL OF GIANTS by Ken Follett (fic)

Reading this long long novel, I felt like I was binge-watching Downton Abby.  It was part---"this is silly, I can't read another word, and part--gimme more...more."  Follett spins a good yarn. His stories are magnificent period-piece soap operas.  The plots are often contrived and the characters outsize.  But, we keep reading anyway.  I find his formula works for different periods of time, characters from different books slip into convenient plots in other stories, just as they do their period costumes.

This is the first of a trilogy (the second and third books, equally long, have already been published).  This book begins the saga of several families, whose paths converge over and over, just as World War I is about to begin.  The Dewar Family are American and Gus Dewar, the son, seems to miraculously rise in power until before the reader can digest it, he is advising Woodrow Wilson, who seems to always take his advice.  Then there is the Williams Family,  poor Welsh miners.  Once again, miraculously, the children are gifted beyond belief.  How is it that a 16 year old boy, on the first day of his job in the mines, is soon giving seasoned veterans advice when a crisis arises.  Similarly, his sister, Ethel who plays a major role in the novel and begins as a parlor maid, within days is soon running the household as the head housekeeper.  If we learned nothing else from Downton, we know there is a pecking order in grand country houses.  From parlor maid to housekeeper in a matter of days----never!

Other main characters are also soon giving orders: the son of the German Ulrich Family is equally sought out for his advice. The brothers Peshkov, Russians, are spearheading the revolution.  Well, you get the picture.  The English Fitzherbert family whose fortunes cross all these characters, seem not quite as gifted as the others, but they hold power and position.  All these families and characters meet, separate, and implausibly meet again. The book ends as World War I ends, and the Women's Movement is in full gear. There is a lot of history to digest withing these pages, and all the characters are movers and shakers who impact that history.  Come to think of it, amongst them all, they seem to be running the world with their timely advice to the powers that be.

Did I enjoy this book?  Of course--it was addictive like candy.  It is not great literature, but it is great escapism.  Will I read the other two volumes?  Possibly.

Monday, November 2, 2015

VIRGINIA WOOLF: A PORTRAIT by Vivianne Forrester (non-fic)

Originally published in French, this biography was translated by Jody Gladding.  It won the Prix Goncourt for biography in France before Vivianne Forrester died in 2013.  This is an intensely researched book and Forrester turns around some well entrenched perspectives of Virginia Woolf.  What Forrester does is to intensely scrutinize Virginia's relationships with her family, her husband, Leonard Woolf, and her nephew Quentin Bell.  Most of the accepted scholarship of Woolf up to this writing was largely based on memoirs written by Bell and accepted as gospel.  He portrayed Virginia as frigid and emotionally fragile.  A good example is the recently reviewed fiction book "Vanessa and Her Sister."

Forrester begins her study with Virginia's traumatic youth and her strange relationship with her overbearing father, Leslie Stephen.  What a dramatic fierce upbringing Virgina and her sister Vanessa had, along with her step-siblings, the Duckworths and their mother, Julia.  All of Virginia's work is influenced by her childhood experiences which were filled with secrets and lies.  According to Forrester the most tragic lie was the myth fostered by her family of "Poor Virginia," who can't help herself as she is touched with madness.  Even Quentin Bell's mother, Vanessa who was closest to Virginia comes in for her share of the blame.  This infantilization of Virginia has slipped in to all her previous biographies.  It was further nurtured by Leonard, her husband, who fussed and over-protected her.

Leonard Woolf is really hit hard by Forrester.  What she accuses him of doing is taking his own compulsive weaknesses and fostering them in Virginia and then bullying her into helplessness.  Problems that Leonard had with his own sexuality and anxieties became the very problems that he accused Virginia of possessing.  Virginia indeed had bouts of mania which the author believes could have been managed in a way that would lead to a more wholesome view of her illness.  Typical of the family's handling of Virginia is a quote from Vanessa to her sister at the height of fears of the German invasion during World War II.
"You must not go and get ill just now.  What shall we do when we're invaded if you are a helpless invalid?"  Such cruel misunderstanding of Virginia's condition, Forrester claims eventually pushed Virginia over the edge to her suicide.

I found this book difficult to read.  There was a great deal of material at times presented with complicated sentence structure.  I am not sure if this was the interpretation of the translator or the author's style.  At times it was almost a Woolfian stream of consciousness.  Since the author takes a different approach and viewpoint of Virginia Woolf's tragic life, it is best read as a comparative study.  It is certainly a book of great importance in the study of Woolf and her literature.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY by Lauren Grodstein (fic)

I am unfamiliar with this author, but I found Lauren Grodstein's novel compelling reading.  The reader learns early in the story that something horrible has happened that has torn apart a family that seemingly had it all.  Grodstein never lets us know what that something is until the climax of the novel. Because of this, the plot buildup is slow and measured.  The novel goes back to the recent past gradually building up the suspense of this suburban tragedy.  The main character, Pete Dizinoff, who has suffered this tragedy, is complete and well-drawn; some of the minor characters, are less so.  Grodstein does an excellent job of giving voice to Pete, which can be a pit-fall when a female author inhabits the soul of an important male character. 

When the story opens, Pete has been banished from his home to a bedroom above the garage. What he has done to merit this is the mystery which through flashbacks is eventually exposed to the reader. Pete is an internist with a successful practice in Round Hill, New Jersey.  He has a lovely wife, Elaine, and a 20 year old son, Alec.  Alec, a sensitive boy of artistic nature, has dropped out Hampshire College.  Gradually we learn that Pete has lost his practice, his friends, and worse of all, his son.  

Intruding on what had been a seemingly normal family life, is Laura, the beautiful 30 year old daughter of the Dizinoff's best friends.  Laura's tragic and sad past is the catalyst which leads to Pete's downfall.  It isn't long before Alec falls dangerously in love with Laura, and we are left to ponder if she uses Alec or in fact loves him in return.  Pete who sees disaster around every corner sets out with good intentions to squash the romance.  It becomes clear that Alec is the only child Elaine and Pete had been able to conceive.  Possibly because of this, Pete is an overly protective parent, the kind which we have labeled "helicopter parent."  Pete has always had a plan for Alec's life without ever taking into account Alec's needs which would allow him to grow into a complete adult.  Pete is well-meaning, loves his son dearly, but is clueless about giving space and allowing his son to develop a sense of self.  Now along comes Laura, ready to spoil all of Pete's hopes and dreams for his son.

Grodstein writes well, and though the story is tragic, I enjoyed reading her well-plotted novel.  The characters are interesting and one feels they could be any neighbor down the street, living in desperation, but seemingly having the best of lives.

Monday, October 12, 2015

TULIP FEVER by Deborah Maggach (fic)

Deborah Maggach's book "Tulip Fever" is about to be released as a movie this fall.  I thought it would be interesting to read the book first, especially as it is about an interesting period in Dutch history when speculation in the market for tulips was wild and crazy.  Of course, like all Ponzi-like schemes, it came crashing down with horrible consequences for many people of the rising bourgeois including the protagonists of the Maggach fictional account.  The book is not new and was written at the turn of the 21st century.  Maggach is also the author of "The Best Marigold Hotel," which was such a huge hit several years ago.

Maggach brings Amsterdam and its citizens to life and does a creditable job of leading the reader into a Dutch-master-like painting turned into the written word.  Indeed, the author has said in interviews that the paintings of Vermeer and Jan van Loos were her inspirations.  Jan van Loos becomes a character in this book and falls in love with the subject of one of his paintings.  She is Sophia Sandvoort, the wife of the wealthy merchant, Cornelis.  Sophia and Jan begin a passionate affair, that is filled with foreboding and darkness.  To bolster this, the book is filled with lovely illustrations of the paintings of the Dutch masters.  Many of the paintings deal with mortality and death using symbols such as succulent fruit resting near a worm or a skull lurking in the background of a seemingly happy couple.  As they become more deeply entwined, the lovers become more reckless.  Grave and dire consequences arise when they begin to speculate in tulip bulbs and become part of the financial bubble that is engulfing Holland.  Sophia is the mastermind of a scheme using the money raised from speculating that will help her escape from her loveless marriage to the much older Cornelis.  Soon Sophia has ensnared her maid, Maria and Maria's lover, Whillem into her plan which leads to a tragic conclusion.

Maggach does an excellent job of presenting 17th century Amsterdam and paints her descriptions as if on canvas.  The moodiness of the Dutch interiors with their bright rays of sun intruding upon the darkness of the background reminds the reader that along with good, evil is able to threaten the subject at any given moment.  The story is interesting and a good one, although one must suspend logic when falling in with the intensity of Sophia's scheming.  I recommend the book as a beautifully written story that is also a 17th century thriller.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

THOMAS CROMWELL by Tracy Borman (non-fic)

Having feasted on Hilary Mantel's two fascinating fiction books on Thomas Cromwell, which have dominated the best seller lists for the last few years, I thought it a good time to delve into a biography of the man and his love/hate relationship with Henry VIII.  Luckily for us, there is plenty of documentation on Cromwell.  With his sharp lawyer's mind, he recorded much of his prolific correspondence and noted all of his transactions including bribes.  Borman's account of his life is as fascinating as Mantel's fiction.

Cromwell loyally served Henry for ten years, all the while enriching himself and practicing the fine art of graft.  He consistently used bribes and called in favors.  Borman reminds us that in the medieval world with power comes corruption.  There is a wonderful portrait of Cromwell painted by Holbein.  Cromwell is dressed in black which heightens the contrast with his pale fleshy face and small eyes.  His only concession to his status is his fur color, strictly deemed to be worn by persons of rank and power alone.

Cromwell was a protege of Cardinal Wolsey whose service he entered in 1524.  Cromwell was a blacksmith's son; he instinctively understood power (honed by his years spent in Italy absorbing the politics of Machiavelli).  His background was always the thorn which pricked at his aristocratic enemies at the court of Henry led by the Duke of Norfolk and his faction.  Henry's court was, "an arena ridden with intrigue, betrayal, treachery and deceit.  Attack was not just the best, but the only means of defence."

In trying to extricate Henry from his numerous and disastrous marriages, Cromwell became interested in the reformation as he studied Martin Luther.  He may have ideologically wished to devolve the monasteries because of their rampant corruption, but he also rapaciously enriched himself and political allies with their spoils.  Cromwell was possessed with energy, ambition, ability and determination.  He was a distinguished orator, able to sway and frighten others. He was close to complete domination of king and country before his enemies gained the upper hand and accused him of having designs on the throne.  He was arrested and beheaded in 1540, a death he had condemned others to, including Anne Boleyn.  True to his fashion, it was not long before Henry bemoaned the fact that others had caused him to lose the most faithful servant he ever had.

One of Cromwell's great achievements was to strengthen the power of Parliament.  Never again would a monarch be the only determiner of the law of the land.

Tracy Borman has written an interesting and readable biography of a complex man of contradictions.  She has been criticized for relying on some Victorian sources instead of using original material.  This point might be more important for one doing deep research, but for the general reader I would highly recommend this book for anyone looking to learn more about the man we were introduced to through, Mantel's fiction.

Friday, September 25, 2015

HOTEL FLORIDA by Amanda Vaill

"Hotel Florida" was chosen as one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times.  It tells the story of the Spanish Civil War which took place in the late 1930s, just before World War II.  It  presaged the rival ideologies of communism and fascism as if in a horrible preview of what was to rent the world in a few short years.  Eventually the reporters, who flocked to the war to make their reputation and fortune, became famous even as the war was forgotten in the greater conflagration which followed.

Vaill masterfully tells the history of the war through the eyes and writings of three couples who worked with and fell in love with each other.  Robert Capa was a Hungarian photographer who made his reputation there by being one of the first embedded reporters, following the troops from battle to battle.  He was joined by his Polish lover, Gerda Taro, a beautiful, brave and daring photographer whose shots depicted the human side of the residual misery war brings.  Gerda's photos became world famous before she died at age 26, crushed by a tank.  Their story is exciting and heartbreaking.

The Spaniard, Arturo Barea, loyal to the Loyalist government and his girlfriend, the lovely Austrian, Ilsa Kulcsar were press officers for the Republicans.  They worked in constant danger, hated by the Germans and Franco's rebels, and likewise by the Russian communists, who were meddling and carrying out large sums of money from the government coffers. Barea who lost friends and family in the war, had little use for the foreign reporters who hounded his office looking for dispatches they could send back home.

Finally the most famous of all, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, equally fearless and hungry for the story and publicity of front page reporting.  Hemingway, especially, is revealed to be a blustering ego-driven blow-hard who was the center of the social scene at the Hotel Florida where reporters and spies gathered nightly to exchange war stories heady with drink and bravado.

The war went on for three years and 400,000 lives were lost, among them young idealistic volunteers from all over the world who came to fight for the Loyalist government which was being crushed by Franco's Italian and German backed money and weapons.  Through it all the Hotel Florida remained standing, a bastion of intrigue, drama, passion and gossip.  Our three couples met and separated here and met again.  We see the war through their eyes and history comes alive thanks to Vaill's precise and interesting writing.  I highly recommend this book to all readers, especially those who would like to learn more about a time in history when young men and women from around the world, fueled by the stories of these reporters, flocked to defend an idealistic government which was doomed from the start.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD by Elena Ferrrante (fic)

This novel is the last book of Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels.  Since I have reviewed the other three books in the series, I don't wish to repeat the many accolades, but if you are an avid reader of Ferrante's work, you will not be disappointed in this latest installment.  She continues with the story of the intense friendship of Elena and Lila and their families.  The old neighborhood is once again the setting as Elena moves back to fuel her writing and resume old friendships.  All the characters of the first novel are here, only now we see these children as they enter old age, still carrying the burden of the past, still passionate in their loves and hates, still carrying old grudges.

Elena's and Lila's children have grown, and the older generation has passed away.  Still, Elena is drawn to Lila and their lives again become entangled.  Elena has now become a writer of renown, yet still doesn't trust her own abilities.  Along with the reader, she puzzles over who is the real author of her work, herself or Lila who is the prime motivator of Elena's work.  As the story progresses Elena gains strength along with insight into her relationships with the various characters of her past, but has never been able to escape the ties that bind her to her childhood's "brilliant friend."  By the end of the book, Elena and Lila have presented the reader with the best picture of the psychology of female friendship of any book that I have read.  I highly recommend the entire series for all readers. Perhaps you will find as I did, that the best was saved for last.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

THE MONGOL EMPIRE by Michael Prawdin (non-fic)

Michael Prawdin, a Russian/German (1884-1970) wrote this book between the World Wars, and it is still in print and popular. While he has been criticized for carelessness in some facts and the credits are not complete, he writes a very readable and complete history of the largest empire of the world, which stretched from China westwards across the vast deserts and steppes through the Middle East and into Eastern Europe. What a history it is!  For two centuries the Mongols were able to dominate China, Iran, Russia and parts of South East Asia. Beginning with the mighty Jenghiz Khan and following his progeny beyond Kublai Khan and Tamerlane until family factions caused its decline and fall.

Jenghiz was born in 1165, a leader of great ambition and insight into the motives and weaknesses of his enemies, he was able to dominate beyond just destruction and fear.  Though terrifying people to the point of their being unable to respond, he also set up a code of laws to govern and was a genius of organization and management.  He inspired loyalty by promoting talented war chiefs and set up a swift messenger service, much like the pony express.  The Mongols were nomads and did not desire riches for vast cities.  The soldiers desired nothing more than plundering conquered territories and portable wealth: silver, gold and material that could move around with them.  Their greatest motivation was the thrill of destroying any who stood in their way.  One can't imagine the terror of seeing a Mongol horde riding swift and tough horses charging down on one's city.  "Nothing was left of a conquered town beyond what might be useful to the Mongols. The invaders were regarded as devils incarnate, as the scourge of God. The tribal name of Tatars, first brought into Europe from the East, was corrupted into Tartars, the dwellers in Tartarus who had risen out of the nether-world."

Eventually Jengihiz Khan's vast Empire was split into three large territories ruled by his sons and grandsons.  They learned to dwell in cities and build great palaces, depending on and adapting the culture of the Persians and Chinese. The famous Kublai Khan ruled over the East and China.  He became enamoured with Chinese culture and Buddhism.

The many violent campaigns became tedious reading but the history was endlessly fascinating.  Prawdin covers a huge amount of history: Marco Polo and other westerners who bravely pioneered into the Mongol territory to trade and learn the culture; the monks and friars who ventured unsuccessfully to obtain converts to the Catholic faith, the Crusaders who foolishly thought they could apply traditional battle tactics against the Mongols, and all the great rulers, East and West who played a role in this story.

The book finally closes with the establishment of the Mongolian Peoples' Republic in the 20th century and the recognition of the importance of Mongolia which lies between Russian and China, a buffer of vast expanse with a diverse population.  The methods of conquering territory that the Mongols perfected is even echoed today when terrorism strikes fear in the helpless and art and ancient treasures are destroyed and cities laid to waste and ruin.

Monday, August 24, 2015

TINKERS by Paul Harding (fic)

This is a beautifully written little book which doesn't take long to read.  It is Harding's first novel and won the Pulitzer Prize.  He studied writing under Marilynne Robinson who is the author of "Gilead," and their writing styles are not dissimilar.

The story is about a man, George Washington Cosby who lies on his deathbed, and we are privy to his thoughts on the eight days he lies dying.  There is no real plot to the story, but it is rich in characterizations as he muses on the people who have touched his life.  Cosby was born in Maine to a poor backwoods family.  His father was the tinker of the title, an epileptic who travels on a shabby cart from farm to farm peddling a variety of wares.  This character is based on Harding's grandfather.  If you are familiar with the hardy old families of Maine, stoic and thrifty, you will recognize the characters you meet here.  Among the finely drawn characters in the book is an ageless Native American named "Sabbatis" who is described in beautiful detail who is understood and connected in an understated way with Howard, the father.

George comes of age in the novel and grows beyond his humble beginnings, he marries and has a family who are loving and attentive to him in his last days.  In life he was a clock repairer finding solace and comfort in the fine tuning of time.  We have been told Mainers are economical in their speech and George's final meeting with Howard takes place on Christmas 1953.  True to form, not much is said between the men, but much is felt.  Howard's final words could also belong to George as he departs life, and they provide a good ending to the novel.

I highly recommend this book for its beautiful prose and style.  While it is about the process of fading from life, it is not morbid or particularly sad.  Rather it is a stream of consciousness tracing various points in an ordinary man's life.

Monday, August 17, 2015

THE SON by Jo Nesbo (fic)

If you are a Jo Nesbo fan, then you don't need a review.  This book is as exciting as his others even if Harry Hole does not play a part in the story.  Gentle reader, you will find yourself rooting for a murderer named Sonny Lofthus, a dark character like all Nesbo's "heroes," a flawed character carrying around enough emotional baggage to supply an army.  Sonny is hunting down people he believes are betrayers of his father who was accused of being a corrupt cop.  In turn, Sonny is being hunted down by a cast of nefarious characters.  You know the drill, Nesbo gives us an exciting thriller which is impossible to put down, even if it is a highly implausible plot with diabolical twists and turns. Totally absorbing!

Monday, August 10, 2015

AN UNNECESSARY WOMAN by Rabih Alameddine (fic)

Almeddine has written a rich philosophical novel about a Lebanese woman who has lived in Beirut her whole life, a witness to all the wars that ancient and historical city has been through.  It sent me running to the Atlas and internet for photos and information about the city as it plays a large role in the life of our narrator who we know as Aaliya.  It is always tricky for a male author to have a woman speaking in the first person as his main character.  The author who does this best is Colm Toibin.  Despite this, Aaliya is an interesting character with a strong inner voice.

This is a novel where little happens outside of Aaliya's everyday life.  The action is all interior.  She is an only child of a mother who largely ignored her after Aaliya's father died at a young age.  The mother married again, and Aaliya has step-siblings, including a menacing boorish half-brother who desires Aaliya's larger West Beirut apartment for his family.  This is the cause of numerous family quarrels.  Aaliya states, "I would choose to die in my apartment rather than live without it."  And, she almost did die.  During the madness of the civil wars she slept with an AK47 by her side.  Her attachment to her apartment is her greatest comfort; it is home, her relief from the craziness of the world outside. It is an escape from the city, once beautiful, which has fallen apart and become tacky. She came by the apartment through an arranged marriage to a man for whom she felt nothing but contempt. They divorce and she is left the apartment in a building where only the women living there have a role in the story.  There are three of them who have a part in Aaliya's life.  Through the horrors that beset the city these women remained strong and caring of each other.  They move the story along to a day that will change Aaliya and her solitary life.

After the divorce, Aaliya found a job in a bookstore which motivated her desire to survive. Here she could lose herself in books and the company of the few readers who returned again and again.  The only two people who touch Aaliya as friends spend days browsing and reading while she works.  One, Ahmad, is a young man who eventually becomes a feared revolutionary, the other is Hannah who is like a sister to her.  Hannah is a woman who herself has an interesting and tragic history.

Aaliya is a gifted translator of books into Arabic.  She speaks a number of languages.  January 1st is an important date for her.  Each year she eagerly looks forward to the New Year when she will begin a new translation.  A great deal of thought goes into the choosing of this book. She has spent 72 years immersed in books and reading and has translated 37 books into Arabic.  These books, the fruits of her labor are stored in boxes in the unoccupied maid's room.

I enjoyed the character of Aaliya with her busy and complicated inner life.  The author inserts many many alusions to books and authors, perhaps too many literary digressions.  There are quotes from both known and unfamiliar authors.  Aaliya's favorites are Nabokov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Alice Monro. However, books and their authors are the companions of Aaliya's life and add to the reader's understanding of her character and solitary nature.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


This book has an unfortunate title; one might imagine it is a book of soppy love stories or bodice rippers.  On the contrary, the book is a delightful compendium of short stories taken from some of the finest English writers.  The stories are arranged in chronological order from Aphra Behn who wrote in the late 17th century to Adam Mars-Jones who is still writing.  In between are such giants of literature as Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, Graham Green, Sylvia Plath and many others, 28 in all.  The theme is love, of course, in its many guises.

Here is the good news if you enjoy well-written short stories and want to expand your library. The book was published in 1996 and a new hard-cover edition on Amazon is selling for approximately $75;  the good news is: there are many used copies also for sale on Amazon and the are only one penny .01, strange but check it out if  you are so inclined.

Monday, July 27, 2015

WE ARE NOT OURSELVES by Matthew Thomas (fic)

Currently a best seller, this first book by Matthew Thomas takes its title from a line in King Lear, and is loosely autobiographical, taking 10 years to write.
"We are not ourselves/When nature, being oppressed, Commands the mind/To suffer with the body."

The story encompasses three generations of an Irish American family in Queens, but mostly is told from the point of view of Eileen Tumulty, a child of the 40s and 50s and her working class childhood.  Possessing a keen mind and a drive to better herself, Eileen worked to obtain a graduate degree in nursing administration and carved out a successful career.  Eileen is intelligent and strong-willed and wanted her share of the American dream along with a successful husband.  What she got was Edmund Leary, a handsome and serious nerd.  Ed is a scientist and brain expert, but he is a man of small ambition, turning down not only an offer from Merck, but also the Deanship of his university which would have led him to the eventual Presidency of the college.  Ed was happy to continue teaching and researching the effect of psychotropic drugs on neural pathways.  Despite Eileen's disappointment in Ed, the couple continue to have a deep and abiding love for each other.  They have one son, Connell, who comes into his own in the second half of the book.  Presumably he is a stand-in for the author.

Perhaps Ed's choice of study was a presentiment of the early onset Alzheimer's which befell him at age  51.  After Ed's diagnosis, Eileen puts all her energy in keeping life as normal as possible for Ed.  This includes keeping his condition private from his colleagues and friends as long as they can.  It is at this point the reader begins to see the struggle ahead and how this disease can drain a family not only mentally and physically but also eat away at a lifetime of savings and pensions and health insurance.  The United States is not an easy place to have a catastrophic illness.  Eileen always in control finds herself fighting a battle against the illness and the system which can bleed a family dry.  Here is Eileen at her best, a tiger mother and wife.  She reminds me of Colm Toibin's Nora Webster, another strong and stern Irish woman whose love of family becomes warrior-like when challenged.

This is not an easy read because of the subject matter and the deterioration of a strong mind.  But, the abiding love of family and one woman's fight to preserve a way of life that is important to her shines through to the end.  The book is beautifully written and would be a good choice for a reading group with much to discuss and think about.  I recommend it as a good read about a serious subject.

Monday, July 20, 2015

THURSDAY'S CHILDREN by Niccci French (fic)

I am determined to get to the end of the week in these Nicci French mysteries.  In this book, Frieda Klein returns to the small town where she was raised.  Her mother is dying of brain cancer; their stormy relationship has not much improved.  Old friends surface, a number of whom still harbor hurt feelings when Frieda decamped to London and out of their lives.  Frieda holds a secret from her past that must be dealt with, and the rape of a young girl in town makes her realize the time has come to do so.  As the mystery develops, both the reader and Frieda realize that Dean, the protagonist from the first novel in the series, is still shadowing Frieda and stepping in and out of her life like an evil sorcerer.

By "Waiting for Wednesday," I was becoming quite sick of Frieda Klein and her seeming obliviousness of her effect on those around her.  It is a mystery to me with her personality or lack thereof that she has a coterie of people around her ready and willing to do her bidding.  These minions seem to have lots of time to come to her aid at a moments notice.  There is the ever-faithful Ukrainian handyman, Josef who can fix anything as well as cook up meal out of nothing.  Frieda's long-suffering boyfriend, Sandy is able to fly back and forth from the States to tend to all of her crises.  Her old colleague, Reuben, also ready and willing. My favorite, Karlsson, the detective she has worked with in other books in this series, apparently has no other cases to tend to or none that he can't drop when Frieda needs his help in obtaining information.  When Frieda returns to her hometown she finds others willing to step in to aid her without questions.

You may ask why I continue with this series.  I really want to see it out to Frieda's confrontation with the nefarious Dean.  Also this book was better crafted and more interesting than "Wednesday."  I have hopes for the Friday finale.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A CURIOUS MADNESS by Eric Jaffe (non-fic)

At the end of World War II, much like the Nuremberg trials, the Allied forces charged 28 Japanese men with war crimes against humanity.  Of the 28 indicted Class A criminals only one was a civilian and that was Okawa Shumei.  This is the story of Okawa and a U.S. Army psychiatrist, Major Daniel Jaffe, the author's grandfather.  Jaffe moves back and forth between the background and lives of these two men whose paths crossed when Major Jaffe was assigned to determine if Okawa was sane enough to stand trial.

During previous wars, little account was given to the ability of men to withstand the mental stress of war and the hideous toll on the lives of the survivors.  The term shell shock came into use during World War I, and it was the common mind-set of the time to believe that it was cowardly to show anything less than a brave willingness to die heroically for one's country.  Men who were not physically infirm were quickly sent back into the heat of some of the most terrible battles known to man.  By the time World War II came along, battle fatigue began to be recognized as a condition to be treated, but men were still quickly sent back to the front to fight.  The armed forces began to draft psychiatrists to help prepare these men to reenter the battle field.  Dr. Jaffe was sent to the Western front to help with the increasing number of mental casualties.  The affirmation of a condition called PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) was far in the future.

Okawa Shumei was a well known Japanese intellectual, professor, and writer.  Entering adulthood during World War I and seeing the destruction caused by war and its aftermath caused Shumei to question Japan's place on the world stage.  He became infuriated with the movement afoot to westernize Japan and recast the country in the industrial image of the United States and England.  He felt he had a divine mission to lead Japan in the unification of Asia and recognize its cultural superiority.  Throughout his adulthood he was constantly involved in secret societies whose purpose was to overthrow the capitalists in the government.  He was part of a plan to assassinate the Prime Minister in 1932.  By World War II, Shumei was a leader in the movement to make Japan the leader of Asianism.  Shumei believed General Tojo was the man to lead Japan to supremacy until he saw that Tojo's fanaticism was becoming unrealistic.

As the war on the Western front came to an end, Jaffe was sent to Japan to help with the trial of the war criminals.  He was tasked with the job of determining the fitness of the war criminals to stand trial.  That Okawa Shumei was guilty as a conspirator was not in doubt, but a curious incident on the first day of the Tokyo trial led officials to question his sanity.  During his incarceration, Shumei began acting strangely and in the middle of the first trial day, he made headlines around the world by rising from his seat and slapping General Tojo on the head.  He was hustled out of the courtroom and Jaffe was summoned to administer a series of tests to determine Shumei's sanity.

Thus begins the interesting story and mystery surrounding "The Slap'" and Jaffe researches the background of both men thoroughly.  He interviewed a number of Shumei's decedents and the few colleagues who are still alive.  He is equally fair in questioning his own grandfather's personality and life.  Was Shumei really insane or was it a plot to silence him from pointing out the faults of past western imperialism?  How was reality distinguished from perspective?  What was the obsession with Okawa Shumei really about?  Jaffe does a credible job of searching for the answers of all these questions.  I recommend this well-written and fair book to all interested in events leading to World War II.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH by Vera Brittain (non-fic)

Noting that a new film based on Vera Brittain's poignant and affecting memoir about the destruction of family life caused by World War I, I decided to reread her book.  I first read "Testament of Youth" shortly after the Vietnam War, and it seemed to resonate with meaning during that era.  The book and Brittain's message has lost none of its powerful significance during our own time of world turmoil.

Vera Brittain writes of the loss of innocence and the war's impact on her generation;she writes of the youth of that time being totally unprepared for the horror they would face and the effect the war had on those who were left behind to face the loss of loved ones and contemporaries.  Britain lost her fiance, Roland Leighton who was only 20 years old when he died, as well as her beloved brother, Edward, and two of her closest friends fighting in France.

Brittain was born into an ordinary conservative Derbyshire family, yet somehow developed into a brilliant individual who questioned the senselessness of sending millions of unprepared young men to their death.  She questioned the British education system which preached platitudes extolling the virtues of of patriotic duty and the noble cause.  Unlike the Bloomsburries who railed against the war, she, also a committed pacifist, volunteered to nurse the wounded in the wretched conditions of a field hospital in the front lines.

Brittain was determined to survive and write an account of the damage of the war and its toll on returning veterans and their families.  It took her 17 years to complete her memoir of friendship and loss.  When published, it became an instant success and was read all over the world. The sad fate of Roland, Edward, Victor and Geoffrey was immortalized, but so was Vera's political awakening and her questioning of correct feminine behavior.  It provided insight into the lost generation and the youth of the 1920s who were forced to face the darkness of reality.

This is indeed a sad book, but one that remains forever relevant as long as our young men and women continue to lose their lives fighting wars that are beyond our understanding and control.  I highly recommend this book to all thoughtful readers and those interested in World War I and its aftermath.  I hear the movie is excellent as well, though sure to be a sad one.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar (fic)

Parmar has set her novel in pre-war WWI London and it spans eight years, 1905-1912, in the life of Vanessa Stephens Bell and her sisiter Virginia Stephens Woolf.  These two beautiful and talented sisters were forerunners of the new freedom young woman were espousing by the end of the war.  Vanessa, two and a half years older than Virgina, was a soon to be renowned painter, and of course, Virginia is lionized even today for her feminist novels and essays.  The girls were quite young when their mother, who was a great beauty in her own right died, and by the time their father died in 1904, they were daring enough to move out of the family home and into bohemian digs in Bloomsbury, which was becoming the center of literary London.  Leaving their Duckworth half sibling brothers (later revealed to have molested the sisters), they settled in Gordon Square with their own brothers, the handsome and adored Thoby and Adrian who was still a student at Oxford.  Once established, their home became a center for writers and artists creating a brilliant circle of friends, names which are still admired today such as: Maynard Keynes, Morgan Forster, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, and Litton Strachey.  We follow the varied and tangled relationships among this expanding group of friends with their open marriages and numerous romances.

Parmar tells her story in the form of letters and a diary kept by Vanessa who is the main character in the book.  The story is largely seen through her eyes.  She provides an excellent and realistic dialogue, always a dodgy task when dealing with reputable and brilliant artists and writers.  The story ends before the war and the many liasons within this small circle of friends through the decades of the 20s and into the early 40s.  Vanessa marries Clive Bell early in the novel, and the story ends with Virginia's marriage to Leonard Woolf.

I enjoyed the novel, and the characters rang true with the exception of Virginia.  Her portrayal is curiously one sided.  Virgina had bouts of manic activity and depression, and she surely was difficult and unruly for her patient sister.  She carried on a strangely platonic affair with Clive Bell, Vanessa's husband.  However, she is presented as consistently weak and manipulative and a drain to all around her.  The author never shows her intensely brilliant side or her rising fame as a writer.  A much more rounded picture of the sisters was written by Vanessa's son Quentin Bell in a book called, "Such Good Friends."  Other good biographies are by Michael Holroyd and through the diaries of Dora Carrington, or the most recent by Viviane Forrester.

Friday, June 12, 2015

THE LIKENESS by Tana French (fic)

Tana French is a terrific writer of intelligent psychological mysteries who puts me in mind of the late great Ruth Rendall.  She has also been compared to Donna Tartt. Tana French is not to be confused with Nicci French who also writes excellent thrillers.  Tana French is Irish and most of her books take place in Dublin or nearby.  French has won the Edgar Award for a previous book, "Into the Woods," which involves many of the same characters who appear in this book.

French is more interested in the characters she writes about than the authors of many conventional mystery novels are.  In this book, Cassie Maddox an undercover detective, who has reassigned herself to the domestic violence department after a nasty case, makes a reappearance when she is called in to help with a murder in the small rural village of Glenskehy.  Cassie was tapped by her old boss and team because the victim bears an uncanny resemblance to her, and most confounding of all, was using a fake identity that Cassie herself had fashioned and used in a previous case.  Once the reader get beyond the somewhat contrived idea that Cassie could have a doppelganger who just happened to have been murdered in her stomping grounds, and can suspend the believe in this premise, the story is crackerjack. Two mysteries are intertwined here; who is the dead girl really, and who is her murderer?

Cassie agrees to impersonate the dead girl and finds herself sharing a crumbling manor house with four students of Trinity College, any one of whom could be the murderer.  Or perhaps the murderer is one of the disgruntled villagers who holds a grudge against the occupants of Whitethorn House.  All the characters in the book are fully developed and an underlying theme of the story is the intensity of friendship and its inherent danger.  As Cassie become more involved with her housemates, she is in danger of losing her objectivity and ultimately her life.  Cassie is a strong character and she begins to make missteps as she is drawn into the isolated life orchestrated by Dan the alpha male of the group.

If you are a fan of mystery novels and thrillers, I highly recommend this book for its well developed plot and fine writing.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

THE LAST HUNDRED DAYS by Patrick McGuinness (fic)

McGuinness has written a thinly veiled account of the last days of communist rule in Bucharest, Romania, under the rule of strong-man Nicolae Ceausescu.  McGuinness lived and taught in Bucharest during the final years of Ceausescu's reign and knows his subject well; his experience was first hand and the story he tells rings true from the characters to the plot.

The main character, a young Englishman, is never identified by name.  Almost as soon as he arrives in Bucharest in the late 80s, he is enmeshed in the strange underground society of the city called the "Paris of the East," though a decidedly shabby shadow of its namesake.  The young man is quickly taken under the wing of a likable but shady black-market dealer named Leo O'Heix who also has a University position. Leo knows the old city and its haunts as if he was born there.  He introduces the narrator to this City of Lost Walks, so named by Leo because of the number of beautiful old areas of the city that have been razed, along with historical buildings and churches. Like a war zone, it is a city of crumbling buildings with a few remaining dusty and dark museums.
"This is how you measure what you have against what there was," Leo said, "you walk it, what remains of it, you hear the clamour of all that's gone. It's your listening that brings it back."
Through Leo the young man meets and becomes involved with a dissident group which is smuggling people out of Romania.

Along with Leo, our hero is mentored by Sergiu Trofirm a former communist intellectual who is writing a memoir of the city.  The young man helps smuggle this book out of the country and into Paris for publication.  He also manages to become involved with two young women, Cilea, a daughter of a party apparatchik and Ottilia, an idealistic young doctor working in appalling conditions in a poorly staffed and dingy hospital.

All movement within the city was under surveillance and monitored by the Securitate, who somehow seemed in collusion with the corruption and black-marketers.
"For all the grotesqueness and brutality, it was normality that defined our relations: the human capacity to accommodate ourselves to our conditions, not the duplicity and corruption that underpinned them.  This was also our greatest drawback--the routinization of want, sorrow, repression, until they became invisible, until they numbed you even to atrocity."

McGuiness, now a professor of French and comparative literature at Oxford, has written an interesting and engaging book about the end of the repressive communist regime in Romania.  Real characters from that era intermingle with the fictional characters.  I enjoyed reading about a country I knew little about except for the odd mention in the news.  I recommend this read for any who enjoy a dose of reality along with their fiction wrapped up in a well-written novel.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

BOOK OF AGES BY Jill Lepore (non-fic)

"Book of Ages: the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin" is an interesting and informational read.  We all are acquainted with the mighty Ben Franklin and the important and pivotal role he played in the creation of the American nation.  Most people have used or heard the aphorisms of "Poor Richard's Almanac."  We know Franklin was a printer, scientist, diplomat and statesman as well as a philosopher.  He was an important voice in the Second Continental Congress and helped draft the American Constitution.  But, who knows of Jane Franklin, his beloved sister?  Jill Lepore enlightens us on this by contrasting the lives of the brother and sister.

Benjamin Franklin was born in 1706, the youngest son in a family of 17 children.  Jane Franklin Mecom was born in 1712, the youngest daughter.  These two siblings shared a special bond that continued throughout their lives. Their faithful correspondence continued throughout their lives.  Both were autodidacts filled with curiosity and a love of learning.  Benjamin was expected to make his way in the world; Jane was expected to marry, and she did.  At 15 years of age she married Edward Mecom, and she raised 12 children and outlived them all except for one.  She loved her children; they and her grandchildren consumed her days.

Life in colonial America was harsh and difficult.  Money was scarce, and Edward Mecom spend a good deal of time in debtors prison.  Jane soldiered on working from light to dusk.  Besides the full time job of raising 12 children, she made and sold a popular soap called Crown Soap; she sewed fine silks and hats for ladies.  But, she never was able to lift herself out of poverty.  She had no help except for the children when they became old enough to work.  Jane had no formal education.  With the help of Ben, she taught herself to read and write, and she became a voracious reader.  Through her letters, we learn of Jane's everyday trials and tribulations.  Her husband was mentally ill, and two of her sons were unable to hold jobs being similarly afflicted.  We learn of the occupation of Boston by the British, and how the citizens coped with food shortages.  We witness the start of the Revolution though her eyes.  Ben cared deeply for his sister and made sure she had money, housing and plenty of books. 

Jane died in 1794.  Lepore did a tremendous amount of research into Jane's life and what it was like to be female in colonial days.  There are thorough notes and appendices at the end of the book that are helpful and add to the interest of the book.  As she completes her research, Lepore tells us:

"Sorrows rolled upon Jane Franklin like waves of the sea.  She left in their wake these gifts, her remains: needles and pens, letters and books, politics and opinions, this history this archive, a quiet story of a quiet life of quiet sorrow and quieter beauty."

I highly recommend this book to all who love history; it is an excellent book for a reading group.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St.John Mandel (fic)

Normally I avoid dystopian novels. I read a review of "Station Eleven," and saw that it was one of the NY Times 10 best books of the year, so I thought I would give it a try.  Well, I loved this gripping and brilliant book.  I was completely enthralled and pretty much read it straight through.  What made it interesting for me was the realization that a catastrophe as that described in the book could actually happen; maybe not in such a quick dramatic way, but a similar event is possible.

The story opens on stage in Toronto where "King Lear" is being performed.  Arthur Leander, a well-known star of stage and screen dies of a heart attack in the middle of the show.  Leander is the catalyst around which all the characters and events revolve.  The story keeps circling back to Leader, his life and wives.  His first wife, Miranda, has created a series of comic books with the character, Dr. Eleven, a physicist living on a space station, thus the title of the novel.

What happens shortly after Leander's death is horrifying.  A world wide pandemic wipes out 99% of mankind.   Soon there are no planes, no fuel, no phones, computers or electricity.  Isolated pockets of survivors have gathered in small villages and settlements for safety and companionship.

The story fast-forwards twenty years, and the reader keeps company with a traveling symphony of about 20 members who perform remembered pieces of music and the plays of Shakespeare.  They wander among settlements along Lakes Huron and Michigan entertaining villagers and occasionally picking up a member or two.  We are reintroduced to Kirsten Raymonde who was 8 years old when the story opened, and who was a cast member in "Lear" with Leander.  Being fond of young Kirsten, Leander gives her two copies of Station Eleven which are treasured by her, though tattered and worn.

Our traveling company arrives at the settlement of St. Deborah by the Water looking for two former cast members who had temporarily settled there to await the birth of their child.  The town is mysterious and under the sway of a religious fanatic called "The Prophet." After a series of disturbing and sinister events, the symphony quickly breaks camp and moves on, hoping to reach a larger settlement at a former airport. Here there is a famous landmark called the Museum of Civilization run by an old friend of Leander. Another character who reappears at this time is a paramedic named Jeevan who was in the audience on the night of Leander's death and tried to revive him.

The small band of actors and musicians find themselves targeted, and several members become separated from the main troupe.  Tension mounts as the story works to a climax and ending, connecting the characters once again.

In the end this is a story of survival in unusual circumstances along with mankind's yearning to keep the past present and memories alive.  I highly recommend "Station Eleven" as an entertaining and interesting novel with a plausible premise.

Friday, May 15, 2015


This is the third volume of the Neapolitan series of books by Ferrante.  There is one more to be written.  Like its predecessors this book is a beautifully written account of the continuing relationship between Elena and Lila who are now entering middle age.  Elena is married and Lila is  living in reduced circumstances in the old neighborhood in Naples.  Although they rarely see each other, the influence each exerts on the other is as strong as ever, continuing Lila's dominance.  You can find a review of the first and second books in earlier postings.  So as not to repeat myself, the superlatives I assigned to the first two volumes apply here as well.  This third book is as strongly arresting and fascinating as the first book.  Again, I highly recommend all three books which should be read in sequence.  I am looking forward to the publishing of the next book in the series.

Friday, April 17, 2015

DEAD WAKE by Erik Larson (non-fic)

The sub-title of this book is "The Last Crossing of the Lusitania."  As a fan of Erik, I was eagerly awaiting the publication of his latest book, and it did not disappoint. Larson writes very readable and accurate books of events that have a great impact on subsiquent history.  You may read, "The Devil in White City" or "In the Garden of Beasts," which is my favorite.

"Dead Wake" is an accounting of the last ill-fated sail of the Cunard Line's Lusitania from its pier in Manhattan to its destination of Liverpool on the coast of the Irish Sea.  This May marks the 100th anniversary of the her sinking by a single torpedo fired from the German submarine U-20.  Larson begins his tale in a mood of celebration as passengers embark on Saturday,May 1, 1915. The great ship was under the command of Captain William Thomas Turner, a somewhat dour and very experienced sailor.  There was definite concern about this crossing as German subs had been busy in and around the Irish Sea, St. Georges Channel, and the Isles of Scilly which lay off the coast of Cornwall, particularly one very dangerous sub under the command of Capt. Walther Schwieger who had begun targeting neutral liners and cargo ships which dared to make the crossing.  However, it was the general consensus that the Germans would not dare to attack such a large and well known passenger ship, considered the fastest on the sea.  Besides, she would have the protection of the Royal Navy warships as she passed through St. George's Channel.

Larson skillfully introduces us to a number of passengers and follows them throughout the voyage which was largely uneventful as they sailed in fine weather and calm seas.  The reader begins to form a bond with these people and picture them at play and rest. His descriptions of the ship and passengers down to their period clothing and habits presents an endearing picture. There were a number of children on board as well and a mixture of American and British citizens. Larson writes an equally interesting account of Schwieger's character and life aboard the very cramped quarters of the sub where sanitation and ventilation were difficult.

The sense of foreboding intensifies as the ship nears the coast of Ireland. Though the reader is aware of the outcome, it is no less nerve wracking as the two ships near their destiny.  The passengers awoke that clear Saturday morning with a sense of celebration as they neared their destination and began to organized their belonging in anticipation.  What they did not realize, but Capt. Turner did, is the British navy was nowhere in sight for the expected escort, nor was Turner adequately warned of the deadly submarine lurking nearby, that the Admiralty was certainly aware of and deliberately ignoring.

When the torpedo hit the unsuspecting ship, it only took 18 minutes for the invincible liner to sink, bringing to mind a similar disaster on another invincible ship three years before, the Titanic. This time, 1200 lives were lost, 128 Americans among them.  Calling on the accounts of the surviving passengers, Larson presents a grim picture of their last moments.

Mystery still clings to the sinking of the Lusitania.  It seems pretty much accepted now, and there is evidence to back this up, that Winston Churchill deliberately withheld escorts and aid, with the confidence that should an attack occur, America would finally enter the war.  Indeed, it did precipitate America's entry as the previously isolationist country-wide feeling dissipated with the news of the sinking and lives lost. It also turns out that the Lusitania was carrying ammunition and arms for the Allies, and after the torpedo hit, the popular speculation was that the ammunition exploded causing the ship to sink.  Larson holds to the theory that highly combustive coal dust caused the secondary explosion which finished off the mighty liner which otherwise might have made it to the nearest port.

As I read, I was wishing that the book contained photos of the embarking and some of the passengers whom the reader got to know.  However, in the author's notes he directs one to a web site of a wonderful film made of the embarkation on the day the ship sailed out of New York Harbor.  As I watched various passengers leaving taxis and excitedly going aboard, I had a feeling of sadness, knowing their tragic fate.

I highly recommend this book to all readers and book clubs.  It is a terrific picture of history being made.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


I am determined to get to the end of the week in this Frieda Klein series and look forward to the Thursday title next.  The husband and wife team, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, have hit upon an interesting mystery formula and their plots are carefully woven and presented.

The usual cast of characters  appear in this story:  Beside Frieda Klein, her long suffering friend, Chief Inspector Malcolm Karlsson; her love-interest, Sandy; her nemesis Hal Bradshaw; Josef the Ukrainian fix-it man; and, her needy sister-in-law and her sassy niece, Chloe.

People have secrets in this book, especially Ruth Lennox the murder victim and her lover, her husband and her three teenage children.  They are the most realistic characters in the novel. Like the other books in this series, the mystery is skillfully presented and keeps the reader guessing and interested.  Having said this, I did not enjoy this book as much as I did the first two, and it is not because of the story line.  I feel the characters are not as realistically portrayed as in the past.  In fact, Frieda is beginning to wear on me.  She is depressed and frankly not very pleasant.  Her boyfriend, Sandy, is just a caricature.  No one could be at her beck and call as he is.  Inspector Karlsson is too loyal to be real and Hal Bradshaw is just too manipulative and nasty a person to believe in.  However,  I continue to enjoy the mystery and hope the next installment will pick up again where the first two books left off.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

WATCH ME by Anjelica Huston (non-fic)

I wouldn't want a steady diet of it, but every-once-in-a-while, it is fun to be a voyeur into the lives of the rich and famous Hollywood royalty.  Certainly, Anjelica Huston is such royalty.  She is the daughter of the enormously talented John Huston who directed such gems as The African Queen and The Misfits.  This is the second volume of an autobiography by Huston who seems to have written it without the aid of a ghosting hand.  The first volume, "A Story Lately Told" tells of her childhood in the rural and verdant Irish countryside.

I began the book with high hopes of being entertained, knowing Huston's relationship of 17 years with Jack Nicholson was a turbulent one.  He was the great love of her youth, and she was with him through his most prolific and talented years when he was at the top of his game, handsome, svelte, and entertaining.  Unfortunately for Anjelica, whom he affectionately called Toots, he was also an inveterate womanizer and consistently unfaithful to her, though he seemed to care for her as much as it was in his nature to do so.  "He done her wrong!," though why she put up with this and allowed it to go on for so long, is never clearly explained.  Perhaps it was that he was a reflection of her dearly loved father who was also an intensely masculine presence in her life, equally involved with a string of women.  She also had two other destructive relationships, an earlier one with Bob Richardson, the fashion photographer, during her modeling days and another with the actor, Ryan O'Neal, who was physically abusive.

Anjelica and Nicholson broke for good in 1990, but she holds no bitterness toward him.  In 1992, she met and eventually married the great love of her later life, Bob Graham, a well-known and respected sculptor.  Huston and Graham had a loving relationship and enjoyed many of the same activities and travel.  The marriage was seemingly a happy one, until Graham died after they had been together for 16 years.  Huston's description of her life with him, is touching and she does her best writing in this section.

While I enjoyed the parts of the book devoted to Huston and Graham's life together, the earlier section of the book was disappointing.  The reader has to wade through lists and list of famous people without much substance or depth.  For example she was in the house with Roman Polanski the night he was accused of raping a young girl; she glossed right over this with a non-descript paragraph or two.  One wonders where the reflection is during her life with Nicolson.  Did she really jump from party to party listing the famous faces in her diary perhaps and just regurgitating them for us?  Was life really just drugs, sex and rock and roll?  Since she turned to acting during this time and won an academy award for her role in "Prizzi's Honor" there must have been periods of hard work and self-reflection that do not come across in the book.

If you are looking for a read about the Hollywood life of privilege mixed with tidbits from the lives of the famous whose paths cross Huston's, read away.  There is the bonus of the book becoming a better read after Huson marries Bob Graham, who was a well-grounded partner for her.  One thing that does come through is Anjelica Huston is a genuinely nice woman who is not given to whining about the messy turns her life took.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

WILSON by A Scott Berg (non-fic)

This comprehensive and marvelous biography of Woodrow Wilson at over 800 pages consumed most of my reading time this month.  A. Scott Berg who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Lindbergh has written a masterful book about another interesting and multi-facited man.  Woodrow Wilson, America's 28th President is a fascinating study of one of the most brilliant minds to occupy the White House.  His progressive policies and idealistic philosophy of government changed the direction of American policy and her place in the world.

The book can roughly be divided into two parts.  The first begins with Wilson's early life and the effect the Civil War had on his development as a son of the south.  It tells of his education and upbringing and his road to the Presidency of Princeton University.  From Princeton, he had a meteoric rise in politics.  The New Jersey political machine mistakenly thought it could control Wilson when it chose him to run for Governor.  He initiated massive reforms, among other things, ending the strangle hold cronyism and corruption had on the state. He only served two years as governor and his fame as a reformer catapulted him into the national spotlight and eventually into the Presidency.  It ends with his very loving and happy marriage to Ellen Axon with whom he had three daughters and his energetic control in enacting his progressive programs on a national scale.

The second section of the book begins with Ellen's death, Wilson's deep bereavement, and the path of America's involvement in WWI and the end of isolationism. Edith Bolling Gault, his second wife, plays a huge role during this time and up until Wilson's death.

It is said of Woodrow Wilson, ....."probably in the history of the whole world there has been no great man of whom so much has been written but of whom personally so little has been correctly known." ....."Stern and impassive, yet emotional;  calm and patient, yet quick-tempered and impulsive;  forgetful of those who had served him, yet devoted to many who had rendered but minor service....precise and business-like, and yet, upon occasion, illogical without more reason than intuition itself."

Wilson was the first democratic President since Andrew Jackson to serve two consecutive terms.  A strong electrifying speaker, he ran on his legislative success and the powerful message that "He kept us out of war."  Despite all this it wasn't long before it became impossible for America to remain neutral as WWI escalated out of control and spilled over affecting shipping and independence on the seas. With the torpedoing of the passenger ship Lusitania,Wilson found himself unable to deny help to his European allies.  It wasn't long before his forceful personality caused him to assume leadership on the world stage.

Wilson's life is enormously interesting and I enjoyed each part of this book equally. Wilson's influence on the peace process and the Treaty of Versailles ending WWI, and his frustration on returning to the United States and being unable to convince the fractured and partisan Congress to pass on the treaty which included a section of forming a League of Nations, was especially enlightening.  His failure to influence Congress and his political enemies, led by Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, eventually led to his death. There are numerous parallels here the reader may draw with the partisanship in today's Congress and its relationship with the Presidency.

In his lifetime Wilson accomplished so much it is impossible to catalog his triumphs here.  To name just a few, he slashed tariffs, instituted a federal income tax, championed the Federal Reserve system, enacted anti-trust laws, instituted the eight hour work day and passed laws against child labor; he also passed woman's suffrage laws endearing him to women reformers; he was the first President to hold regular news conferences.  He adored woman, movies and golf.  He had a huge personality and huge faults.  He was fascinating.

There is enough material in this book to occupy a book group for two months.  I highly recommend it to all readers.  Do not be put off by its length.  I read it slowly going back and forth between other books.  It was thoughly enjoyable and readable.

Monday, March 23, 2015

THE FLAMETHROWERS by Rachel Kushner (fic)

"The Flamethrowers" is as exhilarating as the wild motorcycle ride with which the book opens.  Rachel Kushner uses more similes and metaphors in her writing than any other author I have read.  She uses them with skill and all the power of reality that words can give. The title comes from the flamethrowers that motorcycles hurled during WWI.  They were deathtraps for their riders as well as the enemy. The novel opens at the time of World War I and tells the story of the founder of the Valeria motorcycle company and his romance with motorcycles--motorcycles, speed and sex, the thread carries on throughout the book.

Valeria is only a piece of the story of Reno, a young girl whose real name we never know.  She begins her odyssey on a Valeria motorcycle in Nevada and heads to New York City where she enters the gritty downtown art world of the 1970s.  Kushner is too young to have experienced the lower Manhattan of those days, yet she is spot on in her setting and the eccentric characters who roam in and out of Reno's story.  Reno's coming of age story begins and ends in New York City.  Sandwiched in between is a very realistic portrait of Bellagio and later Rome and the violence that erupted out of the youth movement and union unrest in Italy, a latent response to Fascism and big business.

After arriving in New York, Reno meets Sandro Valeria, an artist, the son of the Valeria patriarch. Shortly after meeting him, Reno returns to the West and realizes a dream of racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.  We already know Reno is a risk taker and a recognized talented skier.  On her way to becoming the fastest female rider in the world, setting a record at 140mph, she crashes her bike but escapes serious injury.

Sandro had escaped the confines of his family by settling in Manhattan.  He wants nothing to do with bikes and his sharp tongued mother and entrepreneurial brother.  Somehow Reno convinces him to return to Italy with her where the Valeria company has offered her a chance to compete and become an advertising icon for the company.  First she must meet the family, and this where the story becomes dark and threatening to Reno who will soon lose her naivety and sense of direction.  Sandro's mother is nasty and bitter, and she still has a hold on her sons.  Reno flees to Rome after an eye opening scene at the Valeria factory.  In Rome, she becomes involved with a group  of young terrorists and has a close call with the law. The characters she meets in Italy are as memorable and colorful as those she was involved with in New York.

The ending of the book is somewhat loose, and it is not completely clear where Reno is headed. Nevertheless it is a satisfying ending.  I enjoyed the book very much and Kushner is an accomplished and gifted writer.  She is deserving of the accolades received as well as the honor of being chosen as one of the 10 best books of the year by the NY Times.  I recommend "The Flamethrowers" to all readers.

Friday, March 13, 2015

NORA WEBSTER by Colm Toibin (fic)

Very few male authors are able to inhabit so thoroughly the minds of their female characters as Colm Toibin.  Having done this so admirably in "Brooklyn" Toibin again does it in "Nora Webster."

Nora Webster, newly widowed lives with her two sons (two older daughters are away at school) in Enniscorthy, County Wexford in southeastern Ireland.  The story is set in the late 1960s and is uncomplicated by today's modern conveniences.  Things move slowly in this little town where everyone is part of everyone's business.  It is a quiet story of an everyday life. There is one large factory, a flour mill, which Nora left 25 years before, when she married Maurice, a respected schoolteacher.  Class consciousness is centered around the lives of the managers and workers in the mill.  A workers strike reflects the politics of the times.  The clergy and nuns also play a role in the life of the town.

As we read, we fall into the rhythms, the ups and downs of real life.  Nora and Maurice had a small circle of friends, but after his death, Nora finds herself isolated from many of her neighbors.  This is the story of Nora finding herself in the midst of grief.  She is strict, severe, and stoic, a woman who doesn't show her feelings despite her rich inner life which Toibin documents so well for the reader.  Nora is not an easy character to like.  She often appears cold and unfeeling. While she loves her children fiercely, alone in her suffering, she has no idea of what is going on in her children's lives.  Her older son, Donal, has developed a worrying stutter, and daughter, Aine, is involved in the struggles in Northern Ireland.  This is just after the Bloody Sunday riots and Toibin's characters are concerned and political in their allegiance with the Catholics in the north.  Nora, though seemingly casual in caring for her children, becomes a fierce Celtic woman when she senses they are in trouble.  There is a terrific scene when she challenges the head Brother of Donal's school when she realizes he is being treated unjustly.
With the help of her sisters and concerned friends, Nora slowly becomes part of her community again.  She returns to the mill where she proves necessary and efficient, she finds pleasure and comfort in singing and music and gives in to her dormant musical talent.  This section of the book is wonderfully developed.  Nora's personality doesn't change, she remains prickly, but her willingness to accept that she must let go of her grief and move forward is presented in a realistic way.

I enjoyed this quiet read and highly recommend it to all readers.  It would be an interesting discussion for a reading group as an exploration of a fully developed character.

Friday, February 27, 2015

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins (fic)

It seems Paula Hawkins hit the jackpot with this book which is an international best seller and is currently on the top of the list of best sellers in America.  Hawkins was raised in Harare, Zimbabwe and now living in England.  While she has written other novels, this is her first big success. "The Girl on the Train" is being compared to "Gone Girl" and has been optioned for an upcoming movie.

I had high hopes for this book as I enjoy a well-written suspense novel.  Hawkins is a decent writer and the plot is clever.  The story is told with three interwoven story lines, each told by the main female characters:  Rachel, Megan and Anna.  All three women have secrets and fibs are told and a threatening atmosphere runs through to the end.  The time frame slips back and forth also.  It seems to me that a number of popular books today use time frames which move back and forth and stories related by multiple characters.

Most of the story centers on Rachel; she is the girl on the train.  Rachel is a complicated mess.  She is an alcoholic and her drinking is out of control.  It is responsible for the loss of her husband, Tom, and her job.  She continues to ride the train to London each day and carries on the pretense that she is still working.  It is unclear what she actually does with her time in London.  Each day on the ride, the train passes the back gardens of the homes in her old neighborhood, including the house she lived in with Tom and which he still lives in with his wife and baby. Rachel fortifies her self with drink, most often cans of pre-mixed gin and tonic.  The trip home takes 4 cans.  Along the way she often sees a glamorous and seemingly loving young couple on their patio, and Rachel invents a life for them.  She calls them Jess and Jason.  They live several doors down from where she lived.

Megan is the real name of the woman Rachel calls Jess.  Megan is also a conflicted character which Rachel discovers as the plot thickens.  Megan is married to Scott, and their life is far from ideal.  Megan's disappearance is the catalyst of the story.

The third woman is Anna who is married to Rachel's ex-husband, Tom.  Anna's character is a foil to Rachel's.  She reacts to Rachel's stalking of her and Tom and their new baby.  In her drunken state, Rachel seems unable to stay away from Tom and Anna.

Rachel suffers from serious blackouts.  She is trying to unravel the mystery of what happened to her on the night Megan disappeared.  On that night, Rachel arrived home scratched and bloody, and she knows something happened in an underpass after she got off the train.  She knows there is a woman involved and a man, but does not know who they are.  She also has a shadowy remembrance of a man with red hair who helped her up when she fell on the station stairs.

To find these answers you will have to read the book.  I am not as enthusiastic about this book as other readers or critics have been.  It has a similar format to "Gone Girl" in which the suspense builds and the ending might or might not surprise.  I was not surprised.  Like "Gone Girl," I did not find the characters in this book likable or empathetic.   For my money Nicci French's books, "Blue Monday" and "Tuesday's Gone" are better thrillers.

Monday, February 16, 2015

TUESDAY'S GONE by Nicki French (fic)

This is the second of a series by the husband and wife writing team known as Nicki French.  The first book is "Blue Monday," both books crime thrillers involving Frieda Klein, a psychoanalyst who becomes enmeshed in the solving of a series of gruesome London murders.

It is dicey to write a review of a mystery novel keeping the plot minimal without giving away too much of the story.  This series of books should be read in order, and I would not recommend reading this book without reading the first.  A review of "Blue Monday" can be read elsewhere in the blog.  I rated it highly and have found I enjoyed "Tuesday's Gone" even more.  Both books are stylishly written with well-drawn characters.  The solving of the crimes is cleverly done and well-paced, keeping the reader's interest right up to the last page.  The mystery is always challenging and compelling.  The city of London  plays a large part in Nicki French mysteries, and the sense of place is strongly drawn.

Many of the same characters from the first book reappear in "Tuesday's Gone."  The novel opens with the discovery of a naked corpse of a man in the home of a deranged woman who has staged his decaying body in her living room as if he had dropped in for a spot of tea.  Because of the woman's mental state, the police bring Frieda into the case, having worked with her before.  It turns out the corpse has a name, but it is an assumed name, and by the end of the book his real identity remains unknown, as well as the whereabouts of his hefty bank account balance which had disappeared. It is a foreshadowing perhaps of the next book in the series.  It soon becomes obvious to Frieda that Poole was a con artist who bilked needy and lonely women out of their savings.  A bizarre mystery ensues and Frieda unravels it bit by bit until the intriguing end.

In this particular book, there is a clue that Dean Reeve the elusive killer from the first book, will continue to plague Frieda Klein and remain her chief antagonist.  If you were frightened by Dean Reeve in the first book, you will continue to be spooked  by knowing he is walking the streets of London lying in wait for Frieda. You will also know that Frieda Klein obsesses over her cases and finds relief by walking though various London neighborhoods after dark.

As before, I highly recommend Nicki French mysteries to all who like a well-written crime thriller.  This book is much better than the wildly popular "Gone Girl."

Monday, February 9, 2015

THE STORY OF A NEW NAME by Elena Ferrante (fic)

"The Story of a New Name" is the second book in Ferrante's Neapolitan trilogy.  You can find a review of the first book, "My Brilliant Friend" in an earlier posting. I can only repeat all I said about Elena Ferrante's first brilliant book.  All the accolades can again apply to this novel.

The story picks up where the first book ends.  The setting is now in the 1960s and covers the years when Elena and Lila, the two main characters, are now aged 16 until 22.  The book again opens in Naples, and Elena Greco is preparing to go to university in Pisa, while Lila Cerullo is stuck in a disastrous marriage.  Before Elena parts for Pisa, where she has been accepted at the prestigious Scuola Normale, the girls spend a summer together on the Island of Ischia.  Most of the story centers on what happens to both girls in this disastrous summer.  Nino Sarratore, Elena's crush in the first novel, plays a large role in the lives of both girls during their holiday.

As Elena's fortunes rise and Lila's fall, the girls remain connected by Elena's failure to break loose from the dominance that Lila has always had over her.  Language and dialect play a large part in the novels of this series.  As Elena becomes more educated, she begins to use the classic Italian of the north, while Lila remains in Naples, where the characters speak in a local Neapolitan dialect filled with the coarseness and brutality of the life they are living.  Though Elena is unable to break from Lila, she also has used her as a spur to better herself and move away from the class she was born into.  The contrast between her and those she grew up with is sharper than ever on her infrequent visits to home.  In Pisa Elena meets and becomes engaged to an intellectual classmate, the son of a famous socialist professor.  She writes a novel that is a huge success, yet when she returns to Naples, she finds no one there has read it or seemingly cares about it.  She has no part in her old world.

What both the reader and Elena knows is that she, Elena, has a strong interior life that we have privy to, but she has little exterior life that she can call her own.  Almost all she has accomplished, she had done under the influence of Lila, including her writing.  The opinions Elena holds are taken from cues of those around her, whether in Naples or in the intellectual community in Pisa.  She comes to recognize that she does not think for herself.  She is as much a prisoner as Lila is in her failed marriage to an abusive husband.

Again Ferrante writes brilliantly.  I felt like I was reading an autobiographical novel.  The characters are all alive.  There is not a fake amongst them.  They are as real as real can be.  I put the book aside when I was reading of the summer on Ischia.  It seemed those languid days went on and on, and I was waiting for something dreadful to happen.  I think I knew what was going to happen, but it was taking a while to get there.  About half way through the book, things came to a head, and I found I could not put the book down.  I began to read non-stop and finished the second half of the book in a few days.

I highly recommend this book to all readers, but it should not be read before reading the first book in the series.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH by Richard Flanagan (fic)

Richard Flanagan was born in Tasmania as is Dorrigo Evans, the hero of his new book.  Flanagan's father survived the notorious Death Railway as a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II.  The building of this railway through Thailand and into Burma, to facilitate a Japanese invasion of India, forms the setting of this novel.  The title comes from a 17th century classic of Japanese literature about a long journey on foot, told in a mixture of prose and haiku.

Dorrigo Evans is a medical officer in the Austrailian army when he is captured by the Japanese and made to tend to his fellow captives who have been pressed into slave labor cutting through the jungles of Thailand and building the railroad.  It was called the Death Railway because it killed nearly 100,00 allied troops, 9000 of them Aussies.  This harrowing subject is penned with care by Flanagan.  The book is beautifully constructed with occasional poetic quotes which stand in contrast to the stark and frightening conditions the prisoners endured.  Flanagan weaves several stories through the bildungsroman of Dorrigo's life, from his childhood in Tasmania, to his love affair with the fascinating and beautiful Amy.  The centerpiece of the book is the Prisoner of War Camp where Dorrigo attempts to maintain as much civility as he can, for the men he is responsible for saving.  When the war is over those men who make it through are forever scarred, and this includes Evans who becomes a hero in his country, but not much of a father or husband.

After the war has ended, the reader also follows the fate of Marjor Nakamura the protagonist of the prison camp.  Flanagan does an admirable job of expressing the confusion of Nakamua who has to work out the dichotomy of blind obedience to the Emperor and his desire to be thought of as a good man.  He spends his life trying to work out this puzzle.

The theme of the novel is life's journey and meaning for all the men, Austrailian and Japanese.  It seems to elude these men damaged by war.  For Dorrigo Evans it is connected with his attachment to Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" who finds life's meaning always just beyond his grasp.  Also Evans looks for meaning in the dark Haiku poems of  Shisui who at his death had nothing to say that wasn't contained in his final brush painting of a perfect circle.

Flanagan has written a story based on truth that will stay with the reader long after the final page is read.  It is well-deserving of the Booker Prize which it won in 2014.  Though it deals with man's dehumanizing brutality to man, it also shows us the consequences of the aftermath of war and the hope of rehabilitation.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.