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.