Tuesday, March 29, 2016

FINALE by Thomas Mallon (fic)

Subtitle: A Novel of the Reagan Years.
Finale was chosen as one of the best books of 2015 by the New York Times.  Mallon, who often writes for the New Yorker, has this time chosen to write about the last two years of Ronald Reagan's Presidency.  Set in 1986 and 87, his popularity waning, his energy flagging, and his mind wandering, we can see hints of the Alzheimer's disease which eventually felled him.  It is tragic that Margaret Thatcher, Reagan's great and loyal friend, was also at the end of her years beset with the same malady.

Mallon writes in much the same style as his previous political novel, "Watergate."  Like "Watergate" Mallon mixes many real and familiar names with a few fictional characters who move the story along.  He writes in a plain style with the setting secondary to the characters whose minds he skillfully inhabits.  The main characters will be familiar to those who followed the politics of the Reagan era.  Those too young to remember will find the large number of characters and their importance difficult to get around.  Certain names will bring back memories to many readers: William Buckley, Jr., Jeane Kirkpatrick, Jackie Kennedy, Bette Davis (with her acerbic asides), Jimmy Carter, John Hinckley, Christopher Hitchens, Pamela Harriman, Oliver North, and above all Richard Nixon, resurrected and rehabilitated from his Watergate days.  Our guide through the period is a fictional Anders Little who connects all these characters allowing the plot to progress.

This is a good book to read in our current political climate to remind us of a more civilized and polite though bland time in our history.  A time welcome to many after the turbulent Nixon years followed by the Iranian kidnappings in the term of Jimmy Carter.  It is also a reminder that current politicians who claim to be heirs of Reagan are nothing like him at all, and that many of us found him incompetent  and elusive rather than enchanting.

The plot centers around two big news stories of the time, the Iran/Contra scandal along with its attendant money laundering, and the nuclear arms meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev (who seemed thoroughly confused by Reagan's detachment) in Reykjavik. Both incidents turned out to be disastrous to Reagan's popularity.  Most interestingly, Richard Nixon who was such a villain in the Watergate book, was living contentedly in California and very actively involved behind the scenes giving advice to Reagan's advisors.  He has some of the best lines in the book and certainly seems to be thinking more clearly than Reagan's handlers.  Nancy Reagan, lovingly hovers around her husband, filled with anxiety that he will blunder in his diplomacy, no doubt aware on some level that his mind is failing.  By the end of the book, even Nancy wonders who  Reagan really is and whatever can he be thinking behind his vague dismissals of the shape the history of his Presidency is taking.

I enjoyed revisiting the Reagan years, and Mallon is a good guide and spot on in so many of his characterizations.  The book perhaps would not be as enjoyable to those who are not familiar with the many names which inhabit the pages of this novel.

Monday, March 21, 2016

ONE OF US by Asne Seierstad (non-fic)

"One of Us" was chosen as one of the Times 10 best books of 2015.  It is written by Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist whose previous best seller was "The Bookseller of Kabul."  This time she has written about Anders Breivik, the notorious terrorist who killed 77 people in one day, July 22, 2011,  following his life from birth to his conviction.  This is such a horrendous story, one wonders why bother reading of it.  I approached this book with two minds and would never have been able to get through it if Seierstad was not such a brilliant writer.  I imagine it was a devastating book to write and perhaps the author's motive for writing is that which many readers, including myself, have for reading it; that is, an attempt to make sense of such senseless violence and to try to understand how Breivik became a killer.  To this end, the title Seierstad chose was brilliant.  Is he indeed one of us?  How is it that Breivik grew so differently from the ideals of a country known for its tolerance and fairness; a country which is admired for its social programs and progress.

Anders Breivik was born in 1979.  His childhood was not a happy one, he was abused at home, his mother was needy and depressed, and unable to provide a stable home for her children.  His father abandoned the family.  His half sister left home as soon as she could.  Anders was never accepted at school.  He attempted to be cool, and as a teen he tried to join a group of taggers who were graffiti artists.  But, he always wanted to be the best, in his mind he was the best.  He left school early and was unsuccessful at business.  The older he got, the more he was prone to violent outbursts and moodiness.  He used steroids and tried body building.  He was dissatisfied with his looks and had his nose done.  He wore makeup.  Things just didn't work out for Anders, and at 27 he moved back to his mother's home.  For the next five years he became a recluse, locking himself in his bedroom and spending as much as 17 hours a day playing violent video games.  He became obsessed with a game called World of Warcraft, where he could fulfill his dreams of dominance.  He logged into white supremacist websites and called himself a Knight Templar.  He began a delusional crusade against women, Muslums, immigrants.  He particularly took against the Labour Party which was Norway's governing party and its teenage counterpart, AVS.

An so we come to that infamous day where all Breivik's planning led to, the day he began by detonating a bomb outside the Prim Minister's office, killing eight.  From there he drove and took a ferry to the island of Utoya where the young members of AVS were enjoying a camping holiday.  Many of these students were the best and brightest of their generation.  There Breivik coldly slaughtered 69 young teens.  In the lead up to this horror, Seiestad tells the story of some of these youths, choosing a good cross section of backgrounds, their potential never to be realized..

One of the sadder aspects of all this was the incompetence of the police.  Seierstad lays out all the lost opportunities the authorities had of following leads and ignoring evidence and information and the sightings called in.  In one horrible instance, a group of police hid onshore right across from the island hearing gunshots and not even taking available boats to investigate while Breivik was calmly shooting one victim after another.

When Breivik turned himself in, the authorities gave him the fairest hearing and trial possible.  He was treated with dignity despite his posturing and demands to preach his twisted philosophy. And finally he was convicted according to the laws of Norway.  Interestingly Breivik recently surfaced again demanding a hearing claiming to being treated inhumanly in his isolation. Photos of the cell show it to be much like a college dorm room with separate bathroom facilities.  The government maintains that his isolation is in a large part to keep his safe from other prisoners who have threatened to kill him.

I recommend this well written book for its fair and complete picture of a complex person who was either a political terrorist or a madman.  Readers can decide whether they agree with the court or not. It is not an easy book to read because of its subject matter, but it is handled with care and fairness.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

THE LAKE HOUSE by Kate Morton (fic)

If you are having withdrawal pains from Downton Abbey, you could do worse than read this novel.  Kate Morton, an Australian writer from Queensland, writes beautifully dreamily descriptive passages that you can lose yourself in.  Morton likes mysteries, and this is a good one.  It is set in three different decades: 2003, 1933, and 1911.

The story opens in 1933 when we meet the Edevane family about to give an annual Midsummer's Eve party.  They live in a marvelous old family manor house in Cornwall.  It is surrounded by enchanting woodlands and sweeping lawns leading to a pond, the ocean close by.  The house and gardens and the  people who live on the manor, upstairs and downstairs, seem caught in a time bubble.  Anthony and Eleanor (née deShiel) with three daughters, Deborah, Alice and Clemmie and one son, baby Theo, all seem blessed with looks, creativity and the time to enjoy this beautiful setting.

Just as we are getting interested in the family and house called Loeanneth, we are brought up short, and find ourselves in modern times, where we meet Sadie Sparrow, a police detective on leave for becoming too involved in a case. Sadie's story also involves a mystery, and she becomes the link between the two eras and stories.  Both plot lines involve a missing person, both involve a child and both have obsessed Sadie.

Sadie's interest is piqued on a visit to her grandfather in Cornwall while she is waiting out her suspension.  While out running one day, she chances upon the old house which is now abandoned and overgrown.  On making inquiries, Sadie learns of the tragic disappearance of a beloved child that has been a cold case for 70 years.  Antsy to get back to work, Sadie sets out to discover all she can about the family and Loeanneth.

As the story pivots back and forth between the two eras, the reader is also propelled back to 1911, to learn more about the deShiel and Edevane families.  At first the plot appears complicated weaving through two different historical times, but Morton is such a skilled writer that the reader soon finds her rhythm and the book becomes difficult to put down.

I really enjoyed this book with one caveat, the ending is too neatly tied up and one discovery that appears contrived.  It left me feeling some secrets would best have been kept. I still recommend it as a well-written mystery by an accomplished writer.