Thursday, August 25, 2016

DREAM HOUSE by Catherine Armsden (F)

I wonder how many of us pass by houses like the one in this story and wonder who lives there and what secrets the house holds.  Occasionally we might see a shadow pass inside or light go on in an upstairs bedroom as we hurry by in the dark.  Catherine Armsden has let us in on the secrets of one such house, the family who lived there, and the girls who grew up there.  Like the characters in this book, the place we call home has meaning in our lives.  Whether happy or unhappy, our childhood home is more vivid in our memory than any other place we lived.

This is the story of a successful architect named Gina Gilbert who lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children.  Gina is reasonably happy until her parents die in an automobile accident and returning to the old home she grew up in causes her to reevaluate her life and her past.  More than just a story of Gina and her sister Cassie, the novel is the story of two old homes on the Maine coast, each hiding a secret.  The house Gina and Cassie grew up in is about to be sold and while Cassie takes it in her stride, it is profoundly unsettling to Gina.  The other house in the same coastal town is the historic Banton House, the old family homestead which has been turned into a museum of the colonial period.  Their Banton ancestor was an aide to George Washington.  Sometime in the history of the family, an historically important cache of letters written by Washington have gone missing.  It would seem reasonable to suspect that one of these houses contains the letters.

The author is an architect herself and her best writing is in the descriptions of these lovely old homes.  She also grew up in a similar home on the Maine coast, and the descriptions of the seaside  and townspeople are realistic and will be familiar to most New Englanders.

Gina's attachment to her home is real, but her relationship to her husband, children and family doesn't substantiate the anxiety she suffers and some of the choices she makes.  There are a number of interesting characters who play a part in Gina's life and I would like to have known more about them.

I especially like that the author begins each chapter with a quote by an architect or about a house.  Gina muses, "Perhaps in this world there were no owners or enters, only borrowers choosing a bit of ground to call home during their short stay on earth."  It is a nice sentiment as she struggles with saying good-by to the the most important place in her past.  Armsden has chosen to write a lovely tribute to past memories.

Monday, August 15, 2016

HHhH by Laurent Binet (sic)

This is an interesting and unusual book.  Stylistically it may not be to everyone's taste.  It tells the story of the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of Hitler's henchmen known as the Butcher of Prague.  The tale is told by a nameless narrator who has decided to research and write about Heydrich including his early life, in an attempt to understand the man and what caused him to become such a feared and detested person.  However, as the novel progresses, the presumed fictional writer becomes part of the story, and it becomes unclear whether the one is reading fiction or fact.  Is Binet writing about himself and his research or is he writing about a fictional character?  Who is the main character here?  Is it Heydrich or is it Binet or is it the unnamed author?  At times the author's obsessive anxiety about his research becomes tedious.  Nevertheless the book is fascinating and highly original, as well as suspenseful.

HHhH are the initials which stand for the German, "Himmlers flirt heist Heydrich" (Himmler's brain is called Heydrich.  By all accounts and standards, Heydrich was a thoroughly distasteful and evil character, who was one of the masterminds of eradicating the Jews in Germany and German occupied Europe during World War II.  The book becomes a nail biter when two Czechoslovak patriots volunteer to assassinate Heydrich.  The plot was called Operation Anthropoid.  The two men were given fake identities and parachuted into the countryside.

Heydrich was given to riding in an open car and the two men lay in wait.  Plans went somewhat awry when the first shooter's gun didn't hit him.  The second man quickly hurled a grenade at Heydrich, fatally wounding him, and he died days later.  The men were helped by others in the underground and the suspense builds as they attempt an escape.  In anger, Hitler retaliates by destroying the town of Lidice and deporting its inhabitants.

Just as I was finishing the book, I read a positive review of a movie about to come out based on Operation Anthropoid, with the same name.  I look forward to seeing it; I don't know if it was based on this book or on other accounts.  This is not an easy book to read as the author attempts to take the reader into the mind of such a fiendish character, but it is a brilliantly written account of a terrible time in history.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (fic)

The noteable Colombian writer, Juan Gabriel Vasquez has written another brilliant book which goes to the heart of Columbia and her people.  The story veers between the present and a mystery of the violent past that spills over to the present and affects the life of the narrator of the story, Antonio Yamarra.  Antonio lives with his family in Bogota and is a law professor in the University. It was his habit to relax after classes by playing billiards in a nearby bar.  There he meets and has a casual friendship with an older man, Ricardo Laverde. One day the meloncoly and somewhat mysterious Laverde confides in Antonio that he had been recently released from serving a 20 year sentence in the States for drug smuggling. He had been a talented and daring pilot.  He requests that Antonio accompany him on a walk through the city.  As they walk out together, Laverde was violently accosted and killed, and Antonio was injured. This incident sets off a chain of actions that leads the reader deep into the atmosphere of Colombia in the 1970s.

After the attack, Antonio suffered from PTSD and was unable to concentrate on anything but solving the mystery of why Laverde was slain in gangland style.  Laverde had confided in Antonio that his wife had been killed in a plane accident when she was on her way to join him in Bogota after his release from jail, and he possessed a copy of the cockpit recording taken from the plane's black box.

The main part of the novel is about Ricardo and Elaine Laverde and how this man became involved in the drug trade, headed in those days by the dangerous drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar.  Ricardo and Elaine had one child, a daughter who is anxious to know more about her father.  Antonio is able to contact her and visits her ranch in the Magdalena Valley which at one time was the center of Escobar's drug empire. Antonio and the daughter, Maya, are able to piece together the story of her parents, whose love story becomes entangled with that of the Peace Corp that Elaine is a member of.
As they entangle the web of her parents' lives, Maya and Antonio are drawn closer together. Vasquez shows how fate places us in situations from the past even as we live in the present.

Part of the mystery of the novel concerns a sound from the cockpit of the downed plane that cannot be identified by Antonio, thus the title:  "It's the sound of things falling from on high, an interrupted and somehow also eternal sound, a sound that didn't ever end, that kept ringing in my head from that very afternoon....."

Antonio strays from his life and his family as he becomes involved in the lives of the Liverdes and rediscovering the sadness and violence of Columbia's past history.   Toward the end of the novel he says, "The saddest thing that can happen to a person is to find out their memories are lies."

I highly recommend this novel to all readers.  The translator has done a beautiful job of conveying the depth of Vasquez's writing.  What a wonderful writer Vasquez is.  

Monday, August 8, 2016

CLEMENTINE by Sonia Purnell (non-fic)

We seem to know a lot about Winston Churchill, but not so much about his wife Clementine.  Sonia Purnell has written a comprehensive and fascinating biography of Clementine, born Clementine Hozier.  Her mother, Lady Blanche, a daughter of Scottish aristocracy, was free spirited and certainly  promiscuous for the age she lived in.  There remains a question of who was Clementine's father because of her mother's numerous affairs.  Some feel it was her uncle the grandfather of the famous Mitford sisters.  

Clementine was highly intelligent and beautiful and could have had a career in academics, but she was pushed into society by her mother, keen to find rich husbands for her daughters.  Clementine was of an anxious disposition and backed out of two engagements before she met and fell in love with Winston Churchill, third son of the Duke of Marlborough and Jennie Jerome, the lovely American heiress.  

Both Winston and Clementine were wildly ambitious. They shared goals and were partners in every aspect of their lives.  It is a fact that without Clementine's help and advice, Winston would never have had the rich political career he did.  These were the days when a woman's influence was hidden or at best minimized.  Churchill barely mentions Clementine in his biographical account of his early years. Yet during WWII, he allowed her access to secret intelligence and discussed all important decisions with her. 

Marriage to the brilliant Winston Churchill was no picnic.  He was a difficult man under the best of circumstances and both he and Clementine suffered from bouts of depression and exhaustion.  While they achieved great feats in the terrible war years, they were neglectful and absent parents.  Their children were turned over to a succession of incompetent nannies. Their three daughters Sarah, Diana and Mary, and son, Randolph ran wild and had unhappy lives.  Another daughter died tragically at age two of septicemia that with better care could have been avoided.  The strain of the life she led caused Clementine to have more than one breakdown, and she was prone when things became overwhelming to take to her bed or go on long holidays with friends.  As her children grew into adults, their relationships with Winston and Clementine remained stormy.  Randolph was uncontrollable and the Churchills shamelessly used his wife, the popular and vivacious Pamela Digby to lure Anerican politicians into supporting America's entry into WWII.

Purnell has written an absorbing and engrossing account of Clementine's life and times.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.  It would be an excellent choice for book groups.